But for the veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the families of the 5,400 Americans who have died, Memorial Day has a distinct meaning.
“A lot of people don’t get it,” says Carlos Arredondo, whose son Lance Cpl. Alexander Arredondo was one of seven Marines killed in the battle of Najaf in August 2004. Alex was 20 years old when he died.
Since Alexander’s death, Arredondo has traveled the country in his battered Nissan pick-up truck, which he’s turned into a makeshift memorial for his son.
On its bed lie a military-styled coffin and some of this son’s prized possessions. On its sides are poster-sized photos of Alexander and gigantic American flags.
“I want people to stop for at least a moment and see,” he says. Sometimes, he parks his truck on top of a freeway overpass during rush hour or nearby a busy intersection.
Sometimes passers-by cross the street to avoid him, but Arredondo doesn’t blame them. It can be hard to understand loss if you haven’t experienced it yourself, he says.
“I didn’t know what it’s like to have a family member die in the military until my son died,” he says.
These days, most Americans have stopped paying attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the news media have been more than happy to oblige. From May 13 -16, the Pew Center on People and the Press found just one percent of news coverage was devoted to the war in Iraq – well behind news about the economy, the Gulf Coast oil leak, the Supreme Court, Europe’s financial crisis, and even the elections in England.
But the public’s indifference doesn’t mean the wars are over. On May 24, the Defense Department announced the death in Kirkuk of Spc. Stanley Sokolowski of Ocean, N.J. The next day, the Pentagon reported Staff Sgt. Amilcar Gonzalez of Miami, Fla., had died in Ash Shura in Northern Iraq after his unit was attacked by small arms fire.
For the larger public, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could be the first to be forgotten while they’re still going on.
But, Arrendondo is one of thousands who cannot, or will not, forget.
He will be on Boston Common Monday with the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund, planting a flag for each Massachusetts soldier who died as a result of combat.
Later in the day, he’ll join another memorial, this one organized by Veterans for Peace, to remember civilian casualties, who number between 100,000 and 1 million.
“We do something every day,” he says. He’s not sure when he will stop traveling, publicly mourning his son’s death and the deaths of others, but is sure he will continue at least until the wars are over.
Aaron Glantz is an editor at New America Media and author of the book “The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans” (UC Press)