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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Memorial Day has been a national holiday for decades, but it can come with fresh pain on a local scale

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What is Memorial Day?

For nearly 20 years, from the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, through the evacuation of Kabul last year, the United States has been at war. Just as they had answered the call in countless wars before, Americans – many from the Inland Northwest – heeded their nation’s call to serve.

Most of them came home, back to the world they left behind, veterans of the Global War on Terror. Others returned in flag-draped coffins, making a solemn journey to their final resting place.

With Memorial Day 2022, the first in many years that the United States is not engaged in a major war on foreign soil, we are reminded that conflicts always come with a first casualty as well as a last.

On Jan. 9, 2002, Marine Sgt. Nathan Hays was among seven Marines killed when their KC-130 tanker crashed in Pakistan.

Hays, a native of Wilbur, was the first casualty of the war in Afghanistan from Eastern Washington.

Sgt. Jeff Shaver was killed in action when an improvised explosive device detonated next to his vehicle during a combat patrol in Baghdad on May 12, 2004. Shaver was the first Washington Army National Guardsman killed in action since the Korean War.

1st Lt. Forrest Ewens was killed in action in Afghanistan on June 16, 2006. A member of the Bulldog Battalion in college, Ewens was the first Gonzaga University graduate to die in the Global War on Terror.

1st Lt. Jaime Campbell of Ephrata died on Jan. 6, 2006, when her UH-60 BlackHawk helicopter crashed near Tal Afar, Iraq. The first woman from Eastern Washington who died in combat during the Global War on Terror, she was, according to the Washington Post, one of 160 servicewomen who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Taylor Galvin was the last casualty from the Spokane area. A helicopter pilot with the 1st Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Galvin was killed in a helicopter crash on Aug. 20, 2018, in Sinjar, Ninevah province in Iraq. A 2002 graduate of Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls, Galvin was 34 and left behind a wife and two children.

According to the Congressional Research Service, 87 Washingtonians died in World War I; 6,904 died or were listed as missing in action in World War II; 488 died in the Korean War; 1,047 died in Vietnam; and nine died during Operation Desert Storm.

There were 58 Washingtonians who died in Afghanistan, and 95 died in Iraq during the Global War on Terror, according to the website iCasaulties.

Memorial Day, for Gold Star families, friends and veterans who returned home from war, can be a difficult time of reflection, and its creation as a federal holiday on the last Monday in May wound down a decadeslong road that started in the months following a cataclysmic Civil War and was passed into law as the country was fighting another war in the jungles of Vietnam.

In 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil War, Decoration Day was proclaimed by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union Civil War veterans who gathered in ceremonies to honor those who died in the war. Decoration Day became a holiday for federal employees in the District of Columbia in 1888, as many of those employees were also members of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Thirty years later, as the Great War was in its fourth year, and with doughboys serving with the American Expeditionary Forces in France, the tradition of decorating graves of the fallen continued.

“Memorial Day 1918 will find new graves of American soldiers and sailors who died for their country,” read an article from the May 6, 1918, Spokesman-Review. “They will not be forgotten. The American Salvation Army women in France on that day will place fresh flowers on the grave of every American fighter buried there since the war began.”

Following the Great War came a second World War, and with the passing of Union Civil War veterans into history, the day became a remembrance for everyone who lost their lives in wartime.

Across the country, many cities and states created their own memorial days, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the Memorial Day holiday was formalized by the federal government.

If you’re wondering how Memorial Day fell on the last Monday in May, you have the members of the 90th Congress – and many businesses who supported the law – to thank for that.

Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, which moved three federal holidays to Mondays – Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February, Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, and Labor Day to the first Monday in September – and established a fourth federal holiday, Columbus Day, on the second Monday in October.

The Washington delegation – two Republicans and five Democrats (including future House Speaker Tom Foley of the 5th Congressional District) – all voted in favor of the Act.

When he signed it into law in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “The bill that we sign today will help Americans to enjoy more fully the country that is their magnificent heritage. It will also aid the work of government and bring new efficiency to our economy.

“This will mean a great deal to our families and our children. It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities.”

According to an article in the June 29, 1968, Spokesman-Review, the day after President Johnson signed the bill into law, businessmen appreciated moving the holidays to Mondays, contending the previously midweek holidays “interfered with production output and increased absenteeism,” while Clarence A. Arata, president of the National Association of Travel Organizations called the law, “the greatest thing that has happened to the travel industry since the invention of the automobile.”

So how does one reconcile the remembrance of lives lost in wartime with the creation of a three-day federal holiday weekend that some heralded for promoting tourism and preventing work absenteeism?

At its core, Memorial Day remains a day to commemorate the service and sacrifice of more than a million Americans who gave their lives in countless battles around the world in places like Lexington, Gettysburg, San Juan Hill, Belleau Wood, Bastogne, Inchon, Hue City, Kuwait City, Tora Bora and Fallujah.

And yet, as President Johnson pointed out, it’s also a time to venture forth and celebrate the majesty of our great country, from the Appalachians to Glacier National Park, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the Redwood forests of northern California, places of beauty and wonder, places that have been bought and paid for, time and again, by people like Nathan Hays, Jeff Shaver, Forrest Ewens, Jamie Campbell, Taylor Galvin and countless others before them.

Rob Kauder, The Spokesman-Review’s online producer, is a veteran of the Marines and Army National Guard and served in the Gulf War and the Iraq War.