Monday’s Memorial Day ceremonies are a time-honored event in the life of our town, ushering in warmer days and marked by a parade, a silent procession to local cemeteries and monuments, the laying of geraniums at the graves of soldiers, the playing of taps, the delivery of speeches, and the tolling of bells for veterans who have died since the previous Memorial Day. Year after year, townsfolk who follow the honor guard from the Civil War memorial to Town Center Cemetery and the World War I and World War II monuments are walking in the footsteps of generations who have come before, doing their part to ensure that an important community tradition endures.
But not this year. This Memorial Day will be a day of private reflection in Harvard. The parade and other public events have been canceled and residents will be honoring the town’s war dead on their own.
Memorial Day began as a remembrance of those who died in the Civil War. The tradition is one that’s been repeated in towns throughout New England since that time, an era when families and veterans struggled to cope with the loss of loved ones and comrades in a war that claimed many thousands of lives. But such horrors did not begin in April 1861, nor did they end there. In some ways, the country never recovered from the carnage of the Civil War and its brutal aftermath.
When we honor those who fell in war, we tend to think of battlefields—Yorktown, Gettysburg, the Marne, D-Day, Khe Sanh, Fallujah. But beyond those who died in such battles are those who died of illness or in captivity, those killed by IEDs or accidents. And we must also think of those whose service to our country left them traumatized or depressed to the point of suicide.
This is a day to honor all those who, in military service, went places they would not otherwise have gone and faced dangers they would not otherwise have met.
Memorial Day is not a political holiday. Normally, it’s a day to reflect and remember, with gratitude, lives that have been sacrificed in the name of freedom and a sense of duty to one’s country. As we do so this year, it’s also a day to acknowledge our responsibility to prevent casualties far from the battlefield by providing our veterans with the care they need, whatever the cost. The toll of COVID-19 at understaffed veterans care facilities is a particular disgrace. Unlike the other battles many of these victims fought, this battle had to be fought against an enemy they couldn’t see in a place where they should have been safe.