What Joe Davis remembers most about his first Memorial Day is the flags — hundreds of them waving limply in the summer breeze as old veterans walked down a Lincoln, Neb., street before a clapping crowd.
Davis, 53, thinks he was about 4 years old — a preschooler viewing the spectacle from his father's shoulders — but even then he knew it was a day that held special meaning for the grown-ups in his life.
"There are a lot of selfless Americans who put their lives on hold to serve their countries in uniform and did not return home alive. They did it to help protect and defend the United States of America," said Davis, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
That was before Memorial Day — the day we honor the nation's war dead — was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend often viewed as the beginning of the summer vacation season.
"A lot of people see Memorial Day as a three-day weekend at the beach, or [a chance to] pick up on some sales down at the mall," Davis said.
Memorial Day, first known as Decoration Day, was originally celebrated on May 30 as a way to honor Union soldiers after the Civil War. After World War I, the holiday was expanded to honor all U.S. war dead. Since 1971, it has been observed on the last Monday in May.
Tom Sherlock, a historian at Arlington National Cemetery, agreed that interest in Memorial Day often lags during peacetime, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought a resurgence of interest in honoring those who died to protect America's freedom.
According to the VFW, more than 52 million Americans have served in uniform and more than 1 million of them died during their service in wars from the American Revolution to Iraq. This year, the nation's 23.5 million veterans and 2.2 million military personnel will join their friends and neighbors to celebrate Memorial Day in virtually every community in the country, Davis said.
At Arlington National Cemetery alone, as many as 60,000 people will observe the day at the graveside of a loved one or a public ceremony, Sherlock said.
"When you see the 22-year-old young widow or widower, you see the sobering reminder of Memorial Day," he said.
Sherlock said interest in honoring the military men and women who have died fighting for their country is high as troops serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the graves of Iraq veterans are among those most frequently visited at the cemetery.
"It's not unusual at all to see soldiers or Marines in uniform visiting the grave site of a buddy who died," Sherlock said. "It makes one stop and think of the true human cost of war."
Davis said the VFW would like to see Memorial Day returned to May 30, so Americans will stop to remember the holiday's true significance.
Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor winner, has sponsored legislation to move the date back to May 30 in past years.