This year, Memorial Day carries added poignancy


ATLANTA - With the Sept. 11 attacks and the war that followed, Memorial Day - a 134-year-old tradition long viewed as just a welcome day off - takes on new poignancy.

Few Americans will experience the emotions of the holiday more deeply than Johnny Spann. His son, Mike Spann, a 32-year-old CIA officer, was the first U.S. combat casualty in Afghanistan, killed during a riot by Taliban prisoners.

"It's different for me, in the sense that I'm going to try to remember all the other people who died," Spann said from his real estate office in Winfield, Ala., where his son grew up.

"I remember Mike every day," he added. "But this Memorial Day, I'm going to remember not only Mike but all people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the people over there [in Afghanistan] now. It'll be a real emotional time for us."

Spann said he spent most Memorial Days as other Americans do: having meals with family, going on vacation with the kids.

"But as Mike got older, he would always remind us that Memorial Day was a special day, that a lot of people forget what it's for," he said. "It's so easy to forget all the people who went before us and laid down their lives so we could be here."

Spann and his family are traveling this weekend to Memorial Day ceremonies around Alabama, including Florence, Birmingham and Auburn. He'll speak at several of them, emphasizing the day's true importance. "After all the things that happened on 9/11 and afterward, I hope this time Americans won't forget," he said.

The war in Afghanistan is being saluted in ways large and small across the country this weekend, and many event organizers expect attendance to be up over past years.

For instance, the number of Memorial Day visitors to the Andersonville National Historic Site in southwest Georgia has been declining for years, with only about 850 showing up last year. This year's ceremony, scheduled for today, will focus on victims of the terrorist attacks at the Pentagon, and Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, is expected to focus his speech on the war and homeland security.

"We're hoping more people will come out this year because of all that's happened," said Lindsey Phillips, Andersonville's chief administrator.

At 3 p.m. tomorrow, Amtrak trains will sound their horns, while Major League Baseball games will pause for 60 seconds.

Organizers of the White House's National Moment of Remembrance are asking all Americans - at 3 p.m. in each time zone - for a 60-second period of silence to reflect on those who have fought for the country.

Masses of people are expected to flock to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol, hemmed in by post-Sept. 11 security restrictions, for a four-hour Memorial Day concert dedicated to the terror attack victims, the heroes of the Afghanistan war, and homeland security efforts, as well as those who fought and died during the Battle of Bataan during World War II.

Thousands also will gather on Washington's National Mall for an "American Worship Gathering," where Christians from around the country will hear Lisa Beamer, widow of Sept. 11 hero Todd Beamer, Olympic athletes and a roster of pastors and musical luminaries pray for the Sept. 11 victims and the thousands of troops overseas.

Elsewhere, communities directly wounded by the attacks or the war are using the day to pay homage. Burlington, Mass., will memorialize residents who died Sept. 11 with a brick flower box installed at the base of the town common flagpole, inscribed with the names and dates of births of the victims. The town lost three men that day - the co-pilot for American Airlines Flight 11, which flew into the World Trade Center, and two Flight 11 passengers.

Paramus, N.J., will mourn its loss of three Port Authority employees. A memorial consisting of a pair of twisted 4-ton beams from the World Trade Center will be dedicated, and victims' family members will plant trees in honor of their loved ones.

In Cheyenne, Wyo., the parents of Army Ranger Spc. John Edmunds, 20, who died Oct. 19 in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in Pakistan, will ride at the head of the city's first Memorial Day parade in recent memory.

The largest Memorial Day ceremony in Georgia, and one of the largest in the Southeast, will be tomorrow in Roswell, north of Atlanta, where 6,000 to 7,000 people are expected to hear retired Air Force Gen. Paul Tibbets and watch flyovers by World War II-vintage aircraft, including a B-29 and a B-24. Tibbets was at the controls of the Enola Gay when the B-29 dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad