Memorial Day 2021 Reflection: “We miss the flowers.”

Army Spc. William Armstrong, a New York Army National Guard Soldier assigned to the 107th Military Police Company, receives a challenge coin from retired U.S. Navy Chaplain (Capt.) Rabbi Irv Elson, representing the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council, in appreciation of his support as a color guard for the remembrance ceremony of Union Sgt. Benjamin Levy at his burial site at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., May 21, 2021. Levy was a New York Soldier who is the first Jewish American to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions to save his regimental colors and rally his unit, the 1st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, during the Battle of Glendale in June 1862. (U.S. National Guard photo by New York Guard Capt. Mark Getman)

Army Spc. William Armstrong, a New York Army National Guard Soldier assigned to the 107th Military Police Company, receives a challenge coin from retired U.S. Navy Chaplain (Capt.) Rabbi Irv Elson, representing the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council, in appreciation of his support as a color guard for the remembrance ceremony of Union Sgt. Benjamin Levy at his burial site at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., May 21, 2021. Levy was a New York Soldier who is the first Jewish American to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions to save his regimental colors and rally his unit, the 1st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, during the Battle of Glendale in June 1862. (U.S. National Guard photo by New York Guard Capt. Mark Getman)

Monday, May 31, was Memorial Day. I had an opportunity to reflect on the power of that day at a Skilled Nursing Facility. Here is my reflection.

Memorial Day, as the last Monday in May, became a federal holiday in 1971, but its origins go back to years following the Civil War. Originally called Decoration Day, it is written that late May was chosen for this remembrance because it was an ideal time for flowers to bloom, flowers that could decorate the graves of those who died in military service.

Regardless of whether the speeches and poems and prayers I selected occurred before or after Memorial Day was official, I shared a retrospective of military memorial moments. Perhaps you will be as stunned as I was at the common thread of lessons we have always been trying to learn, and are still trying to learn.

A few years ago, when we began our move from Tampa Bay to lower upstate New York, I brought one of our cars up on the AutoTrain and was driving up through Pennsylvania when I needed an exit for “food and fuel.” Because there was snow on the ground and an eerie stillness, I was shocked at the spirituality of the moment that the route from the highway to “food and fuel” went past the Gettysburg National Cemetery. I drove through the snow-covered and deserted cemetery that day, paused and prayed. This morning, I relived the Memorial Day significance of Gettysburg by reading President Abraham Lincoln’s address from that site. This is still considered one of the best examples of public speaking, a mere 272 words.

This one sentence from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address captures the essence of what we idealistically strive for on Memorial Day“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – – that we here resolve that these dead shall have not died in vain…”

Pete Seeger wrote, “When will they ever learn?”

In World War I, many of the military dead were interred in Flanders Fields in Belgium. In May 1915 the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae conducted the burial service for Canadian Artillery Officer Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, at Flanders Fields, because the chaplain had been called away. Preparing for the funeral service where he would officiate, Dr McCrae gave us the gift of the memorial poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Its last verse is:  Take up your quarrel with the foe: // To you from failing hands we throw // The torch; be yours to hold it high. // If ye break faith with us who die // We shall not sleep, though poppies grow // in Flanders Fields.”

And, Pete Seeger wrote, “When will they ever learn?”

I read from the Central Conference of American Rabbi’s “The Last Soldier,” which includes“… you know the soldier’s secret. Yours was not a mission of war …. Your mission was to end violence, tyranny despair ….

And, Pete Seeger wrote, “When will they ever learn?”

I prayed an interpretive English translation of El Maley Rakhamim to be suitable for the military deceased across all faith traditions, which included, “… Bind up their lives and memories with our own …”

I circled back to Pete Seeger’s 1955 song that hinted at the poppies in Flanders Fields, but was actually written with another war in mind:  the Russian Cossacks who lived along the Don River in the 19th century, and sang as they galloped off to join the Czar’s army. The Cossacks’ song included, “Where are the flowers?  The girls plucked them …” Pete Seeger introduced the song at Oberlin College in 1955. An Oberlin student at the concert, Joe Hickerson, who was a summer camp counselor, added two verses“Where have all the soldiers gone? // Gone to graveyards every one. // Where have all the graveyards gone? // Covered with flowers every one.” Pete Seeger’s gratitude for these added verses, giving us today the full circle to Flanders Fields, was so deep that Pete Seeger arranged for 20 percent of the royalties from the song to go to Joe Hickerson. Thank you, Joe Hickerson, for these lyrics, which are just as powerful on Memorial Day 2021 as they were for the causes in mind when the song was written in 1955.

And, Pete Seeger wrote, “When will they ever learn?”

May the memories of all the departed who died in military actions be for blessings.

About Chaplain Barry Pitegoff, BCC
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.

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