history of memorial day

Fallen, But Not Forgotten

Marking the beginning of sunshine and summer, Memorial Day is not just a day for backyard barbeques. Memorial Day is a day of strong sentiment, honoring the final sacrifices of soldiers who made it their mission to defend our freedoms. A day saluting great bravery, Memorial Day pays tribute to the service members who fought heroically but never made it home.

A Timeline of Tribute 

Some records indicate the first tribute to Memorial Day took place in 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. After the confederacy surrendered in the Civil War, according to accounts, the dedicatory day was initially organized by a group of freed slaves.

On May 5, 1866, in honor of all who had died in the Civil War, residents of Waterloo, New York, closed their shops and spent their day decorating the graves of soldiers.

Two years later to the day, General John A. Logan, leader of a Northern Civil War veterans’ organization, called for a similar national day of remembrance to take place at the end of May. After 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War, the day, dubbed “Decoration Day,” General Logan declared, will be “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country…and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, [and] village…in the land” (HISTORY.COM EDITORS, 2020).

General Logan’s call for the Civil War commemoration quickly came to reality. Later that month, on May 30, 1868, President James A. Garfield conveyed the day’s significance to a crowd of several thousand on the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

“If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of 15,000 men whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung,” Garfield stated. (Grossman, 2012).

Throughout 1918, after WWI claimed the lives of 116,515, it was soon accepted that Memorial Day was now an occasion to acknowledge all American lives lost in times of war.

In 1971, Memorial Day became an official federal holiday, moving the day of reflection to the last Monday in May.

In 2000, Bill Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which asks Americans to sit in silent solidarity for one minute at 3 P.M., when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the holiday.

To this day, Arlington National Cemetery is still the customary location to observe the holiday, where five-thousand people attend annually. To pay further respect, the 3rd United States Infantry traditionally place small American flags on over 260,000 service members’ graves. It is customary on Memorial Day to fly American flags at half-mast until noon, and then raise the flag to the top of the staff until sunset.

A Day to Honor Duty

The above chronicle of this commemorative day is a long-standing reminder that Memorial Day honors soldiers of service. Staff Sergeant Gene Vance and Major Dwayne Kelly are two exceptional examples of American service members who died in the line of duty. Samuel Ferrucci, veteran and Goodwin University student, served with both Staff Sergeant Vance and Major Kelly during their respective tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Staff Sergeant Gene Vance: His Rise to Top Ranks of Virtue and Valor 

Staff Sergeant Gene Vance was born on November 30, 1963. He was voted “most quiet” in his high school senior class, attended West Virginia University, and was noted as a “strong, shy, selfless quiet man, who loved a wide variety of rock and roll music and dark roast coffee (Wikipedia, n.d.).” An avid outdoorsman, Staff Sergeant Vance enjoyed mountain biking, kayaking, and white water rafting. He served with the West Virginia Army National Guard, and after September 11, 2001, he canceled his honeymoon and college career to go to war.

Staff Sergeant Vance’s knowledge of Persian language and cryptology played pivotal roles in operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists and the communications that ultimately led the United States to Osama Bin Laden. In 2002, Staff Sergeant Vance’s Special Forces Airborne Reserve Unit was ambushed by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Despite being critically wounded in the attack, he continued to translate battlefield intelligence for 18 Afghan soldiers in the area, directing them out of danger and saving the lives of two fellow Americans. The same day, Staff Sergeant Vance died from a fatal gunshot wound during combat. He was 39 years old.

Staff Sergeant Vance received 17 awards for his heroic actions that day, including the U.S. Purple Heart and two Bronze Star Medals for Valor and the Legion of Merit.

Major Dwayne Kelly: A Fundamental Force in Creating Community 

Major Dwayne Kelly was a New Jersey state trooper who worked on the state police squad and FBI’s terrorism task force. He loved basketball, the New York Knicks, and Arabic food. Major Kelly’s grandparents were full-blooded Cherokee, and he was always thankful when his neighbors brought him over plates of traditional Cherokee meals. Major Kelly was described by those who lived close to him as “nice, friendly, and always smiling” (Feeney & Tsai, n.d.). He volunteered for the Beth El-Masonic Temple and the Shriners, and, according to New Jersey state police’s Sargent Guy Packwood, “he believed in what he was doing, and loved doing it” (Feeney & Tsai, n.d.).

Major Kelly was awarded for his excellence in the N.J. State Police Auto Theft Unit. Having worked in the 432nd Civil Affairs Unit of the Army Reserve, Major Dwayne Kelly also received an award of Valor. Due to his Arabic expertise, Major Kelly was noted as a “tremendous tool” while fighting overseas in Iraq. In 2008, he was in Baghdad working to restore the local government and help re-build the community when a bomb went off inside a councilman’s office at the counter-terrorism bureau. The blast was suspected of targeting Iraqi officials when Major Kelly, along with nine others, including four Americans, was killed. A fellow serviceman stayed with Kelly’s body to ensure he would be returned home. He was 48 years old at his time of death.

“I think about them, and I think about their families,” Goodwin veteran student Samuel stated. “The biggest lesson from knowing them is that you can’t take life for granted, you have to live your life like every day could be your last, so make sure you are the person you want to be that day.”

Are you interested in seeing how Goodwin University is helping former soldier Samuel Ferrucci live his life to the fullest? Check out part two to his story.