Like many things in contemporary life, Memorial Day is complicated.
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In the US, its origins go back to the late nineteenth century, when cities began setting aside a "Decoration Day" for caring for the graves of those killed in the Civil War. Memorial Day has been a national holiday only since 1971.
Like most federal holidays, it is observed on a Monday-specifically, the last Monday in May. As a result, many regard it less as a time of remembrance and more as the kickoff of summer, a time for cookouts, boating, amusement park visits, and landscaping projects.
Even among those who commemorate the deeper meaning the day, the nature of that meaning is shifting. Now we have a new generation of losses to remember. And along with honoring those lost in combat, we also turn our thoughts to those who have come home to face other losses: amputated limbs and other physical or medical challenges, deep emotional scars, unemployment, homelessness. They and their families continue to fight battles that the rest of us can hardly imagine.
For those of us who grew up thinking of veterans as the grandfathers and uncles who served in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, it may be hard to expand that view to include a young man learning to operate a wheelchair, or a single mother struggling to keep her family afloat financially while she finishes college. But the bond shared by veterans cuts across generations and situations. And their example is one we should all keep close at heart -- especially those of us who are called to leadership.
We may think about things like developing strong teams and practicing self-sacrificing leadership in the context of our offices and board rooms. Veterans, however, have lived out those values under extreme conditions far from home in jungles and in deserts and at sea, when the daily stakes were literally life and death. Many can tell stories of colleagues who died, or risked death, protecting their fellow troops.
There are numerous ways we can honor that service at Memorial Day, while also learning from it. Here are a few ideas:
Consider making Memorial Day an official holiday for your company, if it isn't already. A press release or ad can explain why you are honoring the day by staying closed.
If it's not feasible to close, find another public way to remember the meaning of the day-through signs, social media, a mass e-mail, or an article in your corporate newsletter. If your business involves sales, offer a discount, bonus, or incentive to veterans and their families.
Host a breakfast or lunch for your staff in honor of employees who have served. Invite others to bring photos or mementoes of veterans in their family.
Encourage your employees to volunteer at a local VA hospital, or to support a project like the VFW's Buddy Poppy program or the Honor Flight Network. Doing good together is a great way to bond team members.
Above all, reward the service of veterans by hiring them when you have a chance.
The example of commitment and heroism among our veterans--those who have passed on and those who are still with us--is a humbling one, worth remembering and honoring not only on a Monday in May but every day.