I have no idea where I will be at 3 p.m. Monday, when a national moment of remembrance takes place, but Memorial Day will be very much on my mind.
Monday is the day to pause and give a moment of respect to those who, regardless of race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation, served, fought and died in behalf of our nation.
Hopefully, time to remember can be found in the din of holiday sales pitches.
“Memorial Day returns May 25. Until then, check back daily for more ways to save,” says the Wal-Mart Web site. “7 Memorial Day Sales You Won’t Want to Miss,” reads a headline in U.S. News & World Report’s Money section. “Chevy Memorial Day Sale, 15% off cash back.” “Memorial Day Sales 2015 — Coupons.com.”
And then there are all those cookouts and barbecues. Will there be any time to pay tribute?
Let’s hope so. Because as we bustle about in hot pursuit of those sales and bargains, and as we gather all that food to cook for the family gathering, it’s worth remembering that American men and women are embroiled in wars fought far from our shores. Their lives could be claimed. They could end up in the graves that get decorated next May with flowers and flags. Next year’s prayers could be recited for them. Parades could take place in their honor.
Next summer’s beginning could be marked with their remembrance.
I’m part of a long line of men in my family to have served in the U.S. military. My great-grandfather, Isaiah King of New Bedford, Mass., was with Company D of the 5th Massachusetts (Colored) Cavalry during the Civil War. My uncles, Marshall Colbert and Robert Colbert, were soldiers in World War I and World War II, respectively. My younger brother, Cranston, was an Air Force captain. And I was an active-duty Army officer from 1961 to 1963. My relatives and I aren’t among the countless number of men and women who died in service to their country. But we all proudly wore the uniform, even though the home front wasn’t always very kind.
My great-grandfather enlisted as a Union soldier at the age of 16 to defend against the great rebellion of the South, and he participated in the Siege of Petersburg, which resulted in 2,974 Union and 4,700 Confederate casualties.
He and his fellow black soldiers were paid less than white troops until, after months of protest, they finally got what they were owed. Getting a pension following his release from service was even more difficult.
His physical hardships and the struggle for his retirement benefit are documented in the book “New Bedford’s Civil War” by Earl F. Mulderink III. It took Great-granddaddy King 13 years, but he finally got his pension, which was $75 a month at the time of his death in 1933.
My uncles returned home from military service to a Washington, D.C., that was separate and unequal in nearly every respect. And the bars on my shoulders in the early ’60s weren’t enough to get me seated and served in southern public accommodations.
We were among the thousands of men of color who responded to the call to arms from a nation that demanded loyalty and discipline from us while often forgetting to reciprocate.
But we served. As did many of my Howard University ROTC classmates, some of whom gave their “last full measure of devotion” in Vietnam.
Do you know the formal declaration made by the men and women sworn to defend America? It’s worth remembering and repeating on Memorial Day. This is the Soldier’s Oath of Enlistment:
“I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
We who served will always remember that oath. In return, not just on Monday, but every day, the nation must remember what it owes to its defenders — all of them.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.