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It’s Memorial Day — a day set aside to honor and remember the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. An important day indeed. But a quick look around here in 2012 reveals an unsettling reality: Something terrible has happened to this day. It’s not the same as when it originated as Decoration Day to honor fallen Union soldiers in the Civil War. It doesn’t have that same reverence, that same importance. Somehow over the years this memorial has turned into a holiday weekend filled with fireworks, barbecues, poolside hangouts and much-hyped sales at the mall.

I’m just as guilty as the next guy. I love this weekend for its perks: the official launch of summer vacation season, an extra 15 percent off at Macy’s, and a much needed day off of work. And just a few hours ago I attended another weekend festivity, PBS’s National Memorial Day Concert in front of the Capitol building. Armed with a blanket and McDonald’s Cherry Berry Chillers (highly recommended by yours truly), my brother, his wife and I made our way to the event, fully expecting to have a good time and hear some great music. But it’s funny how plans can change… sometimes as fast as the weather.

Thousands gathered on the steps of the Capitol and on the lawn out front. Families, children, friends, elderly, veterans — all excited to see the great line-up of artists and talent, set to include: former Secretary of State Colin Powell, actors Joe Mantegna, Gary Sinise and Selma Blair, rock band Daughtry, singers Natalie Cole, Trace Adkins and recent American Idol runner-up Jessica Sanchez, and the National Symphony Orchestra, among others. In short, we were ready for a good time.

We were just getting settled in, listening to Jessica Sanchez’s heartfelt rendition of the national anthem, and Daughtry belting out their huge hit “Home.” Then Trace Adkins really caught my attention when he sang “‘Til the Last Shot’s Fired.” It was beautiful. As he ended the song, I replayed the lyrics in my mind: “Say a prayer for peace, for every fallen son. Set my spirit free. Let me lay down my gun.” And then, before I could ponder any further, a police officer abruptly took the microphone with an unwelcome announcement: The concert was being evacuated due to bad storm weather rolling in.

The thoughts that could have entered my mind in that moment include: Are you serious? But… we packed a blanket! My sister-in-law brought carrots and celery sticks! I walked two miles with a painful blister just to get here tonight!

But much to my surprise, I didn’t think those things. It seemed no one complained or groaned or threw a fit. Everyone peacefully got up and started filing toward their homes, their cars or the nearest Metro station. Many had camped out since early afternoon to reserve a spot, many had children with them, many had traveled from other cities or states for this very event. But the strangest thing happened — there was a tangible peace in the air.

Even on the incredibly crowded Metro platform, there was peace. This in itself is a miracle.

As I sit here typing, blistered feet glamorously propped up on my coffee table, I remember. I remember the men and women who are no longer with us because they chose to give up their freedom to fight for ours. I remember the ones who died in the line of fire — horrific, terrible deaths — so that we can feel safe. I remember those who are out there today protecting the lives and rights of others, so that I can have the freedom to write what I want, what I feel.

I’ve never seriously considered joining the Armed Forces. It would be a ridiculous notion, honestly. I am the world’s biggest klutz, I’m scared of bugs, and (in case you’re living under a rock!) I get blisters on my feet all too easily. On the frontlines, I’d be a huge liability to this Nation. But that makes me all the more grateful. Because I’ve done nothing to receive this protection, to deserve this security. Yet, thousands and thousands of brave Americans have given their lives for — in essence — me.

The thought gives me chills. Their sacrifice fills my heart with gratitude. And it makes me realize what Memorial Day is really all about.

You see, the festivities around this holiday aren’t all bad. Everyone loves a good barbecue. A dip in a pool on a hot day is heavenly. And any excuse to get together with friends and family is always welcome. But Memorial Day is really about just a moment — those five minutes you and me should take to reflect, to remember and to be thankful.

I’m sure the National Memorial Day Concert was a well-intended memorial for our fallen soldiers. PBS has, in fact, done a splendid job putting on this concert for the past seven years. It’s always tasteful and lovely. But to me the most powerful part wasn’t on the stage or in the crowd. It wasn’t even in the enormous storm clouds making their way into the city. It came when I was finally alone in my apartment, sitting on my couch and drying off from the incredible rain that did in fact show its wrath.

Right here. Right now. There is power in these few minutes I spend thinking about the real reason behind Memorial Day. There is something sacred. There is a peace. There is a reason.

So today, I encourage you to take a moment, take a minute. Remember the fallen. Respect the sacrifice. Appreciate your freedom. Say a prayer.

Don’t wait for the storm clouds to roll in. Do it now.


Video credits: Rem Photography; Video music by Trace Adkins