The din of cannon and carbine and the clash of saber and sword still echoed through the national memory when communities began honoring the dead of the Civil War with springtime remembrances.

By 1868, three years after the cessation of hostilities that claimed 500,000 lives, the inaugural Decoration Day was observed at Arlington National Cemetery. The annual observance would come to be known as Memorial Day, a national holiday held on the last Monday in May to pay homage to those killed in the country’s wars, a number now estimated at 1.2 million.

This year, Memorial Day may carry added significance for many as the nation marks 150 years since the conclusion of the Civil War and the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which left more than 400,000 Americans dead. Among the roughly 22 million veterans in the United States, about 1 million served during that global conflict.

Air Force veteran Brett Knaub said Memorial Day offers him an “opportunity to pause, reflect, and pay special tribute to all of the men and women who gave what President Lincoln termed ‘the last full measure of devotion’ fighting for the United States of America.” 

“I will thank God for my fellow Americans who answered the call to defend us and pray for all of my countrymen still willing to do so,” said Knaub, who is Chief of the Transition Division for the Project Global Shield Program Management Office at U.S. Strategic Command headquarters in Nebraska. “I will pray we never lose sight of the many who sacrificed to protect each one of us, our families and our freedoms.” 

Knaub retired with the rank of colonel in 2011 after 25 years of service. He counts among his military heroes: George Washington, the father of the nation; Joshua L. Chamberlain, a Medal of Honor recipient for his bravery leading Union troops during the Battle of Gettysburg; and Robinson “Robbie” Risner, an ace fighter pilot during the Korean War and a POW for more than seven years in Vietnam.

“I will pray we as a nation always remember that true evil exists in this world, and that such evil can’t prevail if we remain vigilant; willing to stand against it, no matter the cost,” Knaub said.

U.S. Army veteran Sam Lea says his military hero is Colin Powell, who started his Army career in the ROTC and became the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Secretary of State.

“However, it is not only because of his groundbreaking presence in our government,” said Lea, a production planner with a North Carolina chemical company. “It is because he and I actually have something in common in our personal histories. We both graduated high school without any definite plans for where we wanted to go in life. So, I think the combination of education and military experience gave both of us some structure and direction in our lives.”

Lea spent four years in the Army and, like Knaub, earned his Master of Business Administration degree from Florida Institute of Technology. He will be among the millions of Americans who gather around backyard grills for family barbecues during the long Memorial Day weekend.

But the occasion will be tinged with somber contemplation of the personal sacrifices made by so many. Lea has several relatives who served in the armed forces, including a cousin who was killed in the War in Iraq.

“I use Memorial Day for remembrance of them and the inspiration they provided for my interest and service in the military,” he said.

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