DEVENS — Memorial Day 2020 was observed in spirit only, as the pandemic made it impossible — and dangerous — to pay homage to the region’s fallen heroes.
With more than half of the state’s residents fully vaccinated, falling COVID-19 caseloads and a full lifting of virus restrictions scheduled to take effect Saturday, proper recognition of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice is back this Memorial Day, and what better place to have a ceremony than the former Army base in the Nashoba Valley?
Thursday, wearing his full dress uniform and standing among more than 1,200 graves, Col. Edward J. Healey, commanding officer of the 25th Marine Regiment, used his remarks to speak to how Memorial Day’s intent can be easily lost.
“I have often been greeted over the years on Memorial Day by well-meaning Americans thanking me for my service,” Healey said. “While their words are well-intentioned, I cannot help but think it would be more appropriate, more fitting, for all Americans to instead seek out a war widow, or a child growing up without their veteran mother or a father who has lost a son in battle and offer the words ‘thank you for your sacrifice.’”
The Worcester native who was commissioned in May 1995, invited the assembled crowd and those watching online to pause in a national moment of remembrance at 3 p.m. local time on Monday, May 31.
“Although we can never truly repay the debt owed to the fallen and their families we can at least take time to remember them and give a silent thank-you for their sacrifice,” Healey said.
After more than a year of restrictions that limited gatherings brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Healey told The Sun he hopes Americans will celebrate as they always do while remembering the fallen.
“After a year where many have experienced a loss of freedom, to be able to live their lives in a manner they had become accustomed, that this year Memorial Day becomes all the more relevant to us,” Healey said. “To be able to recognize that way of life, freedom, and security that they’ve enjoyed and they are now able to return to did not happen by accident. It’s the result of the sacrifice of blood, sweat, and lives of American men and women that have answered the call to fight for their nation,” Healey said.
Healey said he does not discourage Memorial Day marking the start of the summer months. However, he hopes that citizens will reflect on the holiday’s origin, particularly with American soldiers still serving in conflicts abroad and losing their lives.
“It doesn’t have to be all about cemeteries and memorial services, but I do hope Americans take just a few moments over the time to reflect on the origin of Memorial Day and that the reason it was established over 150 years ago is just as relevant today as ever. American men and women are still dying in defense of our nation today,” Healey said.
In 1868, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic John A. Logan issued General Order 11. The order designated May 30 as a memorial day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Over time the holiday has come to encompass service members lost in all conflicts.
In addition to Healey’s words, Army Special Forces veteran Joe Cunningham read “In Flanders Fields.” The poem was authored during World War I in 1912 by Canadian-physician Lt. Col. John McCrae.
Over the years many poets have responded to McCrae, including Moina Michael, who started the tradition of poppy wearing. Michael’s response came at the end of the war in 1918, however, Cunningham said that McCrae’s words still ring all too true years later.
A celebration like the one held Thursday is what Cunningham describes as “an anchor point that brings you back to what’s important.”
Cunningham is from a military family. His father served in World War II, his brother served in Vietnam, and his son is an active duty infantry officer. Members of his family date back to the American Revolution and he is part of the Sons of the American Revolution organization.
“Service and patriotism aren’t just outdated words to me. They’re still very much alive and very much in me,” Cunningham said.