Memorial Day still has unique purpose for vets, pols

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A veteran leads the color guard procession during the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5253 in Albertson. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

For the past several weeks, Jack Hirsch has had to repeatedly answer the same question: why do Americans celebrate two holidays for veterans, Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

The answer is simple — Veterans Day celebrates the military service of all veterans, while Memorial Day, celebrated across the U.S. on Monday, honors those who died for the country at war, said Hirsch, the commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5253 in Albertson.

To Hirsch and many others at the VFW Post’s annual ceremony on Monday, it’s important to pay special tribute this week to all who gave their lives to protect the nation’s freedoms — and to teach future generations about the day’s significance.

“No veteran who serves his country should go unrecognized in life, illness or in death,” Tony Catalano, who fought in World War II with the U.S. Army, told the crowd of about 50 at Monday’s ceremony.

Memorial Day was first conceived as Decoration Day in 1866, following the end of the Civil War. It was recognized as a federal holiday in 1971.

While it’s often celebrated with barbecues and sales as the unofficial start of summer, Memorial Day is meant to be a solemn remembrance of the great sacrifices military service members make, Wayne Wink, the North Hempstead town clerk, said at the ceremony.

Monday’s rainy weather, which cancelled some Memorial Day parades around Long Island, was a good reminder to “stop and think about what this day is truly about,” Wink said.

Some shared personal stories about how war affected their lives.

North Hempstead Councilman Peter Zuckerman (D-East Hills) said it took him several years to understand the tattoo from a Nazi concentration camp that his grandmother had on her arm. American soldiers came and freed her during the war, Zuckerman said.

State Assemblyman Anthony D’Urso (D-Port Washington), an Italian immigrant, recalled waiting as a child for U.S. soldiers to liberate the town where his family lived from the Nazi German army.

When they arrived, a soldier brought candy and broke down into tears upon seeing D’Urso’s then-18-month-old brother, who was the same age as the soldier’s son when he left for war, D’Urso said.

“That’s what veterans mean to me, that’s what America means to me, and I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” he said.

Charles Berman, the town’s receiver of taxes, said he took his children to France to see the beaches of Normandy, which their grandfather and great uncle stormed during World War II.

It’s up to the community to ensure that younger generations know the nation’s military history and its significance, Berman said.

“If it’s not being done in our schools, then we have to continue to do it ourselves,” he said.

To Marianna Wohlgemuth, a former co-chair of the Albertson VFW Ladies Auxiliary, Memorial Day is a chance to teach children not just about the valor of the country’s soldiers, but also the human cost of war.

“There has to be other means other than killing each other” to resolve conflict, Wohlgemuth said.

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