On Memorial Day each year we take time to honor our brave service members, and to show gratitude and support for our Gold Star Families who lost their loved ones in defense of our nation. We owe it to them to pay our respects and to reflect on the high cost of freedom which they know too well.

Americans began putting their lives on the line and protecting their communities, even before our nation was founded. However, it was the Civil War which led to the establishment of the national cemeteries, and Memorial Day itself. More than 650,000 Americans died on both sides during the Civil War. That is about equal to the total number of Americans to die in all our other wars combined.

In 1862, Congress authorized President Lincoln to purchase grounds for use as national cemeteries. From this beginning the National Cemetery System emerged. President Lincoln understood that burying those who fell in battle, where they fell, was no way to honor their sacrifice for freedom. That same year President Lincoln signed into law the bill allowing the creation of 14 national cemeteries.

On May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared it should be May 30. It is believed the date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies.

After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns. These early celebrations marked the beginning of what we have come to know as Memorial Day, a time to remember those who are gone but never forgotten.

We can never underestimate, or over appreciate, the service and sacrifice of our Veterans and their families and we also know that service members continue to serve our nation both here, at home, and abroad.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) and their dedication to honoring and caring for our Veterans and their families who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

This Memorial Day take time to pause and remember. For those who cannot make it to the National Cemetery, the NCA uses modern technology to help you pay tribute to your Veterans anytime using the Veterans Legacy Memorial. Friends and family can visit their Veteran’s page and post a brief comment saluting their Veteran’s service at www.va.gov/remember.

Tiffani Mathews is the Public Affairs Specialist for the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System.

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