The meaning of Memorial Day

Reflections of retired Gen. James Amos on our national day to remember

Memorial Day is more than just a long holiday weekend. In the Novant Health family, there is perhaps no one better suited to explain its resonance and significance than Gen. James Amos, USMC, Ret.

Amos joined the Novant Health board of trustees in 2018, after an impressive 42-year military career. He served as the 35th commandant of the Marines and oversaw units at every rank from lieutenant colonel to general. He reset the Corps’ combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, shepherding the beginning of a force reduction from 241,000 Marines to 221,000. And he introduced Marine leadership to industry best practices regarding diversity and talent management.

Now, as we head into this important weekend, we’ve asked him to share what it means for our military and our community.

Many Americans confuse Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Could you please explain why Memorial Day is sacred to active military men and women, to our veterans and to their loved ones? 

You bet I can. Memorial Day was established for Americans to take pause once a year and to remember the many sacrifices of men and women who have worn our nation’s cloth and have fought our nation’s battles over the past 244 years. As the word “memorial” tells us, it’s a day for remembering and honoring those who sacrificed their lives in battle and service.

It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. In the Civil War, an unimaginable 620,000 soldiers were killed, a death toll massive enough to force the creation of national cemeteries. The holiday used to be called Decoration Day because many people would spend the day placing decorations and flags on the graves of fallen soldiers.

On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day to honor and mourn those who died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.

Veterans Day, on the other hand, has a different history. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, was declared between the Allied nations and Germany in the First World War, then known as “the Great War.” Commemorated as Armistice Day beginning the following year, Nov. 11 became a legal federal holiday in the United States in 1938. In the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a holiday dedicated to American veterans of war.

Could you share why you feel Memorial Day should have greater importance to our nation?

I’m kind of a softie at heart. My wife of almost 50 years calls me a mush-pot because I get choked up at most of our national holidays. But Memorial Day has a special meaning for me as it causes me to remember specific names — names of men and women I have personally served with who rest now under those white marble crosses in our military cemeteries. I’ve now buried two of my three closest friends in life, all three being fellow Marines. We entered the Marine Corps at the same time and grew up flying together over decades. Their lives, as well as their family’s lives, come to mind on Memorial Day.

And of course, the countless memorial services I’ve attended over the years, particularly since 9/11 and our combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, come to mind every Memorial Day. As I’ve grown older, many of the names have begun to fade, but the circumstances of their loss have never left me.

It’s simply our sacred duty as fellow Americans to take pause on Memorial Day.

You led Marines in multiple worldwide conflicts. Who are some of the patriots you remember on Memorial Day?

I remember well the CH-46 helicopter crew we lost on the opening night of Operation Iraqi Freedom. They crashed at 2 in the morning in the middle of a huge sandstorm, along with a squad of British Royal Marine Commandos that they were inserting behind enemy lines.

I remember taking the call in my command center at midnight about the loss of one of my attack helicopters just outside of Baghdad.

Then there was the CH-46 helicopter that went down in the Euphrates River, just south of ancient Babylon with all hands lost.

I well remember the Marines I lost on a convoy who were attacked just outside Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.

Years later, I remember the Marines I lost at the battle of Sangin, Afghanistan, one of the deadliest of our time. I remember attending the memorial services back home in Southern California for many of them, while standing by their families and loved ones.

The list is pretty long. My hope is that I don’t ever forget them as I get older. I want to remember as many of them as I can.

On 9/11, your office was destroyed by American Airlines flight 77 when it struck the Pentagon. Can you tell us how that affected you?

This was a defining time in my life. What happened on 9/11 has shaped my approach to many things since that day.

Just months before, I had moved into a newly renovated portion of the E-ring of the Pentagon. My office was on the fourth deck, overlooking the Pentagon helo pad and Arlington Cemetery. I was a young one-star [general] at the time, working as the deputy head of Marine Aviation. I was away from the building when American Airlines flight 77 was hijacked and deliberately flown into my side of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., killing all 64 people onboard, including the five hijackers and the six air crew. In total, 184 people were killed that day at the Pentagon.

Just 35 minutes before, the airplane had taken off from Dulles and was loaded with jet fuel when it flew into the bottom three floors of the Pentagon. The impact and explosion were so severe that it drove what was left of the plane through the E and D rings, finally stopping at the C ring. My office was three windows just to the left of the point of impact. The top area and roof of the Pentagon burned for five days before the fire department was able to put out the flames.

Our entire country was in mourning. You remember it. None of us could believe that it had happened to us on our own soil.

Here is some of the irony, though:All partisan politics were set aside. Think about that. Partisans became patriots. Everybody flew American flags from the homes, their offices, on their cars. You couldn’t drive under an overpass on the interstate that wasn’t covered in American flags. We became a single body of people. We were all Americans, and we knew we’d come out of this and would see better days.

And you know what? We did, and we have. So while it was truly what I call “the worst of times,” it also became the best of times. Our nation came together. Like the Bible says, “We were in one accord.”

Marines have a proud history of leadership. What are some leadership lessons that all Americans can apply during this worldwide pandemic?

Great question. We need to remember who we are as a country and remember our history. We are overcomers. It’s time to be positive.

Never doubt that we will figure this COVID-19 matter out. While it’s a tough nut to crack, never doubt our ability to crack it.

When you think of all that our nation has been through in its 244 years, we have to believe in ourselves. We can do this.

Focus on what’s important, not the fear of the unknown. Do what’s right in taking care of your health and the health of your loved ones.

Lastly, if you have the wherewithal to help in any way, then do it. It can be financially or materially — just do it.

As our country suffers the loss of more than 90,000 Americans from COVID-19, what message would you like to share with “team aubergine” at Novant Health?

You know, Americans have always applied the term “hero” and “heroes” to our military, our police and our firefighters. I think that we’re seeing a whole new generation of heroes emerge out of the COVID-19 fight. You can’t look at national news in the evening or read the newspapers or scan the internet without reading about our healthcare workers — all of them, from doctors and nurses and physician assistants, to the team members who clean the rooms and ensure that all is sanitary.

This generation of healthcare workers has discovered its true grit. They’ve faced the impossible head on. They’ve stared down death and have overcome. While it’s been terrible, I predict that these men and women will rise from all that they’ve seen and experienced as more dedicated professionals. They have all been tried in the crucible of life and death, and they are stronger for it.

These ladies and gentlemen — selfless in all that they are now required to do — are today’s real heroes.

While the political climate in Washington now remains as partisan as I have ever seen it, we are seeing the goodness of our country begin to shine. Folks are coming forward to help in any way they can. Industry and the scientific communities are as energized as I’ve seen in decades. We’re going to get through this, and we’ll do it as an American people.

And similar to the tragedy of 9/11, while these are clearly the worst of times, I would argue that, in many ways, they will be viewed in hindsight as the best of times because the will and strength of the American people will have defeated the COVID-19 virus.

We are overcomers!