Shawn Kelley | 'Celebrating' Memorial Day

A Vet-ted Mind | Prioritizing parties over reflection causes us to lose sight of purpose

· May 28, 2014, 8:44 am   ·  Updated May 29, 2014, 6:09 pm

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M e morial Day. Depending on who you ask, the day will have a different meaning. For most students at Penn — or students in general — it signifies the start of summer vacation. It’s part of a three day weekend that includes barbecues and parties. Yet for myself and many others, there is a much deeper significance.

Memorial Day is a day we remember those who gave everything in defense of something they loved. Whether it’s patriotism, family or a loved one, it all boils down to protecting what you love. Some take the day to visit the graves of family relatives, others just to pay their respects. I take the time to remember those who I served with.

If it’s not immediately obvious yet, I’m not your typical Penn student. I enlisted in the Navy while I was a senior in high school. During my time in the service I took part in the enforcement of the Iraqi no-fly zones and had friends deployed to assist in operations in Kosovo and East Timor. For some it was their final deployment. After five years I left the military, only to be confronted with the choice of reenlistment a year later after the Sept. 11 attacks. Again, those I had served beside were deployed, and not all returned. While I carry their memories with me every day, Memorial Day holds a place in my life for me to really thank them for everything they did, both in their duty and through their friendship.

The experiences I’ve had have made friendship difficult at times. I don’t think I’m the only veteran that has felt like only veterans could understand. In part I still believe that those unique experiences we go through create an unbreakable bond.

Returning to school 14 years after graduating high school created new challenges, mostly in my interactions with other students. Attending Penn I wondered how I’d be able to communicate with someone half my age, with such a disparity in experience between us. My first year here I felt some of that apprehension and didn’t speak out too much. However, this year Penn experienced some losses felt by a large number of the student body. As I saw those affected, I recognized that pain. I began to focus less on differences and more on similarities. I opened up more to those around me. By doing so I’ve made some great friends. I encourage both my fellow veterans and the Penn student body to communicate and support one another.

Still, I feel there has been a disconnect along the way — that we’ve lost sight of the meaning of Memorial Day. I asked some of my friends recently: What does Memorial Day mean to you? Not surprisingly, a majority of them responded with “parties,” “picnics with family” and “catching up with work.”

Case in point, not many know that Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday of May simply to give Americans a three-day weekend. Daniel Inouye, the second-longest serving senator, as well as a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, introduced a bill into legislation calling for a return of the day to May 30. In his introductory remarks, he says:

“Mr. President, in our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation. Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer.”

I have to agree with the former senator. I fully believe that as a nation, we already have plenty of holidays we use to do the same activities that are currently partaken in during Memorial Day weekend. Yet we have only one day that we have set aside to remember the sacrifices made by those in defense of what they loved. Let us take that one day out of all our lives to commemorate and reflect on the parents, siblings, children, relatives and friends that deemed that sacrifice worthy.

Shawn Kelley is an LPS sophomore from San Diego studying English and Japanese. His email address is skelley@sas.upenn.edu.

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