Somewhere between the time Jim Cowman was growing up in rural Michigan and his return from a tour of duty in Vietnam, the meaning of Memorial Day changed.
Cowman, 65, cites a decline in patriotism and a more complex world as reasons why he thinks the national holiday honoring those who died while serving their country has turned into little more than a three-day weekend for many Americans.
During the 1940s and ’50s, Cowman remembers the respect and honor accorded World War II veterans, who also ran the town’s youth sports leagues and scouting programs.
He recalls half of the 8,000 residents of his hometown of Manistique, Mich., regularly turning out to watch the annual Memorial Day parade downtown.
The Clovis resident, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and remains active in local veterans organizations, said he feels more hurt than angry about the change in the way Americans view Memorial Day.
“We worshiped the World War II veterans,” Cowman said. “Patriotism meant a great deal in those days.”
John Fondrick, who works in the New Mexico Department of Veteran Services office in Clovis, said people just don’t appreciate the importance of holidays such as Memorial Day or even the American flag.
“(Memorial Day) is supposed to be about remembering those who have served our country,” Fondrick said. “Instead, to a lot of people, it’s just another day off.”
Fondrick, whose office serves the needs of an estimated 6,000 veterans in the eastern New Mexico and West Texas region, puts some of the blame on parents for the malaise toward patriotism and national holidays.
“We ought to be educating (children) and passing what it should mean to them,” he said.
Don Elder, a history professor at Eastern New Mexico University, believes Vietnam played a large role in how some Americans view the military and war.
Unlike previous military actions which united the American public, Vietnam split the masses.
“Right or wrong, the perception by many was that American soldiers weren’t dying for a good cause,” Elder said. “Memorial Day is different because the nation has lost its sense of purpose and unity.”
While Elder has never served in the military, he said his family roots trace back to the American Revolution and his great-grandfather fought in the Civil War.
“Memorial Day is a sacred day to me,” Elder said. “But I think the American public lost sight of why it is such an important holiday. It will always be a special holiday to me because I’ve never lost sight of the fact that people gave their lives so I could live in comfort.”
Cleaning around the gravestones at the local cemetery was once a Memorial Day tradition for many families, including Tricia Potter’s family.
“It was very important to us,” said Potter, who grew up near Tucumcari and Clayton and now works in the Lawn Haven Memorial Gardens Cemetery office in Clovis.
“We’d always take a picnic lunch,” Potter said. “It was a time to get together and reflect on what the people that went before us did. I don’t think a lot of people realize the sacrifices that were made so that we could be free.”
Potter said that although she has not carried on the family tradition, she always takes time on Memorial Day to reflect on the sacrifices made by others.
Flip Frazee, a former vice wing commander at Cannon Air Force Base and current ROTC director at Clovis High, said the world simply has changed.
Young people just don’t understand the importance or the relevance of Memorial Day, he said.
“I certainly don’t take it as an insult,” Frazee said. “Half the kids I ask don’t even know the meaning of the Fourth of July.”
Frazee said he tries to expose his students to the honor and tradition of the American flag and national holidays through the school’s Color Guard.
“Once they participate in an event, it makes a difference,” Frazee said. “That’s why I try to get as many involved as I can.”
However, Frazee said he celebrates Memorial Day in his own way.
“I’m no different than anybody else who is heading to the lake or out of town,” Frazee said. “But I’ll try to take time to remember those who made the sacrifice so we could live in a free country.”