As we rejoice in the splendor of a three-day weekend, it is imperative that we acknowledge the true purpose of Memorial Day: to remember our national history and guiding principles through paying homage to those who laid down their lives for the ideals we hold dear. It’s a day to get to know these individuals, to learn their names and stories. Abraham Lincoln invoked this sentiment during his 1863 Gettysburg Address in which he reminded us of the evocative way the fallen gave everything for what they believed in and that “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion.”
Memorializing those who have perished in battle has its origins in antiquity. Even before the end of the American Civil War, several solemn ceremonies took place in which mourners left visual expressions of gratitude, sympathy, generosity and affection on soldier’s tombstones. Three years after the end of the war, General John Logan officially proclaimed an annual, national observance called “Decoration Day,” with the purpose of adorning graves of those who died during the national schism. The formal holiday began in May of 1868, a time in which flowers were symbolically blooming after a long winter. These flowers were tenderly placed beside graves to commemorate those lost. Perhaps these flowers would also serve as an invitation to passersby to learn about the deceased. This same year, both Confederate and Union soldiers were decorated at their shared final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. By 1971, Congress declared the final Monday in May to be Memorial Day, a national holiday in which we honor those who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Arlington National Cemetery is a home for fallen heroes and the final resting place for more than 400,000 service members – ranging from prominent military figures to privates. The rolling hills and uniform marble headstones stand as somber reminders of our national history and the true cost of liberty. In Section 60, particularly, one can see that the spirit of Decoration Day is still very much alive, as are the memories of the fallen. Flags, photos, challenge coins, wreaths, flowers, and other items rest gently next to the white marble headstones. It is here where you may feel the full magnitude of what these men and women sacrificed. Each of these individuals had a rich and colorful life that they put on hold to serve our nation. They were someone’s child, spouse, sibling, parent, and friend. Through mementos, we see – all that they were – and all that they could have been.
While many of the holdings within the Veterans History Project (VHP) derive from living veterans, thousands of collections are donated posthumously from families looking to preserve the legacy of their loved one via their original photos, letters, diaries/journals, manuscripts, 2-D artwork, military documents, and unpublished memoirs. Through the Gold Star Family Voices Act, immediate family members (parent, spouse, sibling, or child) of “members of the Armed Forces who died as a result of their service” participate in oral histories where they can serve as the mouthpiece for their fallen loved one and contribute their distinct experiences surrounding this loss. It is through these collections that we learn the names and stories of the warriors who gallantly sacrificed everything so that we may enjoy our nation’s freedom this weekend.
One such warrior is Reyner Aceves Aguirre from San Gabriel, California. Growing up in a big family in the barrio, Aguirre saw U.S. Navy service as an opportunity to step out on his own and advance his career. The 23-year-old was the envy of many of his friends when he announced that his first cruise aboard the USS Arizona (BB-39) would take him to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. While deployed, Aguirre wrote several postcards and letters to his sister and checked to see how the family was getting along without him. On December 7, 1941, Aguirre and more than a thousand shipmates on the USS Arizona lost their lives during the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
One month later, his family received the unwanted news of his death by telegram. Every member of his family coped with the loss differently. Some were stoic, others joined the military to avenge him, others still stood up a local American Legion, and then there was his nephew Frank, who collected memories of Aguirre. Frank compiled a memoir containing letters, photos, memories from friends, and personal thoughts of the uncle he wish he had gotten to know better in a memoir entitled “Reyner Didn’t Come Home.”
Tragedy was not unique to the Second World War; however, each individual lost left an irreplaceable hole in the hearts and lives of their surviving families, friends and communities. Like Aceves, Larry Michael “Mike” Jordan served in the U.S. Navy. Unlike Aguirre, Jordan was drafted just two weeks before his college graduation. Despite the escalating war in Southeast Asia, Jordan and his wife, Jan started a family. On April 12, 1966, Lieutenant Commander Jordan, was returning to the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) when his plane was shot down over the People’s Republic of China. Back at their home in Salem, Oregon, Jan Jordan was three days overdue with twins. Her peaceful morning was interrupted by a knock on the door and news that would change the 22-year-old mother’s life: Jordan’s aircraft had been shot down and he was declared as Missing in Action. Days after receiving the news, she wrote a memoir entitled: “We Regret to Inform You” and a later volume, “Missing in Action,”that captured her emotions. For years, questions lingered with family and friends, however, little to none were ever answered. By 1973, Jordan was officially declared Killed in Action. His name can be found on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. on panel 6E, line 106. A Veterans History Project collection includes letters Jordan sent to his family during the early days of his service, Jan’s poignant memoirs, photos, U.S. Navy reports about the accident from 1966 to 1992, letters from Congressman, and even a letter from Jan to First Lady Barbara Bush in 1991.
Tamara “Tammy” Lee Archuleta always knew two things: she wanted to fly, and she wanted to serve her country. Setting high goals for herself, Archuleta persevered through flight training at age 15, martial arts, and at age 16, graduated Valedictorian of her Associate’s degree program. She enrolled in the R.O.T.C. program at University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and a commission in the United States Air Force.
She was the first woman to receive her wings through University of New Mexico’s R.O.T.C. Program. Archuleta was driven to be a fighter pilot until she took her first flight in a helicopter. From there, she was hooked. Her mission shifted to one that afforded peace in times of war. As a rescue pilot, she could resourcefully aid downed personnel, isolated troops, and during peacetime, rescue civilians who were lost or injured. While serving in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, she wrote letters to elementary school students explaining her role with the 41st Expeditionary Rescue Squadron and that through helping rescue those in need, they would “show the people of Afghanistan that we are here to help them.” Archuleta was days away from rotating home and was looking forward to seeing her young son, Donny and marrying her fiancé, Casey. On a dark and stormy night in March 2003, Archuleta was sent on a medical evacuation mission to save two injured Afghani children. Her HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter collided with a mountain, killing all six crewmembers onboard. She lost her life at age 24, but accomplished her dreams, and lives on through her family’s stories and memories.
Although we will never be able to fully repay them, we pay tribute and will hold these hero’s memory in high esteem. As you enjoy summer’s simple pleasures, VHP encourages you to also revere the lives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice and paved the way for our freedom. Commemorate their lives. Place a flag or flower on their grave, attend parades, and learn about those we lost from the families of the fallen who will forever carry their legacy through their hearts and their stories.
Every service member has a story. Every family member who received the flag on behalf of a grateful nation has a story. Collectively, we are all better because of these stories of profound loyalty, honor and selfless service. Through learning about a fallen hero, their legacy lives on through you. This weekend, take a moment to pause, say the name of a fallen soldier, airman, marine, sailor or coastguardsman, remember who they were and be inspired by what they stood for.
Make Memorial Day meaningful. Interview a veteran or Gold Star family member in your community. Head to loc.gov/vets for more information.