The American tradition to mark important events, or recognize important people, in our history is…well just that, an American tradition. We celebrate our independence with fireworks and concerts during the peak of summer. We celebrate our veterans on the 11th day of the 11th month of each year. We celebrate the laborers who built this country and continue its prosperity with calloused hands, tired eyes and full hearts every September. Just as Labor Day ends the summer season for most families; the long anticipated Memorial Day weekend brings with it the promise of sunshine and beaches. The cultural ‘beginning’ of summer. Perhaps a day of remembering those who fought and died protecting our freedoms and way of life is the perfect day to mark the end of a school year and the beginning of a season where families take vacation and dads break out their white pants for a round of golf.
Obviously, Memorial Day is more than just a convenient spot on the calendar used as an arbitrary threshold for summer’s arrival. For many of us who served in combat, it’s a consummate reminder of just how fortunate we are to still be alive. For us, and many families who’ve lost their hero in battle, Memorial Day comes with vivid memories and familiar faces. Names that don’t just make up the negative space on white tombstones, but reveal an empty void in our hearts and lives.
That is, however, the price of freedom. To be a society so free that on the last Monday of every May millions of Americans wake up and decide for themselves how they’ll spend a rare weekday off work. For most, it’s a day at the lake, or a cookout with their family, or perhaps a day at the ballpark. I’ve done all those things myself. And as a Marine who lost both legs and dozens of friends in combat, let me say without pause, that’s a perfectly fine way to celebrate this sacred holiday. My brothers and sisters paid this debt and provided for this relatively pampered life we enjoy as Americans for us to indulge in it. Not just on Memorial Day, but every chance we get.
But with your celebrations, take a moment to connect the dots. Have a conversation with your children, or the Gold Star Family that lives down the street. Make the day more than just a moment of remembrance, add faces and names to the ambiguous ‘those’ who gave their life. Arlington is the historic nucleus of memorialized heroes, but those hallowed grounds are only a portion of the thousands of acres across the world, adorned with iconic white markers. Few towns and cities aren’t within a short drive to a veterans’ cemetery; what better day than Memorial Day to take a detour and see with your own eyes manicured rolling green hills covered as far as the eye can see with graves of heroes?
But there are more ways to memorialize these heroes than simply visiting a grave. I don’t wait for May. I keep my brothers with me all the time. I have them tattooed on my arm. They’re there with me for the world to see. They’re there for the victories and the failures, and all the quiet moments in between. I tell people who ask why I have these tattoos, ‘I paint them beautifully on my skin so they don’t have to fester alone in my heart.’ Sadness reminds us of how good it feels to be happy, and loss reminds us of how much a blessing others are in our lives. Tattoos have become my way of expressing just that, my emotions. My tattoos are my story, my service story. They’re my memorial, everyday. If you celebrate Memorial Day, I hope you do go out and have a great time. I also hope you take the time to swing by a veterans’ cemetery and visit our freedom saints. Whatever you do on this sacred day, do it with a smile on your face and gratitude in your heart. They deserve it, and so do you.
Johnny ‘Joey’ Jones’s new show USA Ink explores the stories of the true military heroes memorialized in his tattoos. It debuted on Fox Nation on May 29.