A trip to Memorial Park in Columbia, SC, Monday found a smattering of people inspecting around the various monuments to those who gave their lives while in military service.
Were it not for an extended family from Pascagoula, Miss., passing through, there would have been barely a dozen individuals on hand on this Memorial Day, most of them Vietnam-era veterans.
It was a paltry showing given that the park is dedicated to those who lost their lives in Vietnam, Korea, World War II, World War I and, specifically, the Holocaust.
But, then again, Americans have always tended to be a forward-looking group. This isn’t always a bad thing, but there’s a certain sadness that comes with the recognition that our society as a whole has limited interest in showing its appreciation to so many of its young men and women who died in service to their country.
Politicians will roll out the platitudes at the proper times, families who have lost loved ones will grieve in their own private way and a small percentage will genuinely make an effort to recall those who gave their lives for the US.
Except for the latter two groups, most Americans see Memorial Day as little more than just another holiday, a chance to cook out, swim at the local neighborhood association pool and knock back a few beers.
It may not be the America that those that gave their lives would have wanted to die for.Last year on Memorial Day, I wrote about a South Carolinian, Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr., who died less than 24 hours before the end of World War I.
His story is among the millions that are almost completely forgotten today, but without which it would be impossible to say where we’d be as a nation.
Consider that if the powers-that-be hadn’t been so intent on pushing back the end of the four-year-long conflict to the ominous-sounding “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, Ravenel could well have survived to return home to family and friends.
Ravenel came from Stateburg, the Sumter County community made famous by Gen. Thomas Sumter.
Hailing from a well-known family, Ravenel was known throughout the state, according to a newspaper article written about him by The State following his death, and he was acknowledged as Sumter County’s first volunteer following President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of War in 1917.
Commissioned as a lieutenant, Ravenel was stationed at what was then Camp Jackson before being sent overseas as a member of the 316th machine gun battalion of the American Expeditionary Force.
News accounts of Ravenel’s death describe him as a “brave soldier and was highly esteemed by a wide circle of friends.” He was promoted to captain during his service on the Western Front.
An indication of his bravery may be the fact that he was killed on Nov. 10, 1918, the final full day of the war. Rumors were rampant by this point that an armistice was imminent and many soldiers were understandably content to essentially sit back and keep out of harm’s way.
Ravenel was killed in action near Verdun, France. Verdun, of course, had gained fame a couple of years earlier as one of the longest and most devastating battles of not just World War I, but in the history of warfare.
That protracted struggle resulted in more than 300,000 battlefield deaths (163,000 French and 143,000 German), plus at least 500,000 wounded; an average of 1,000 deaths a day for each of the 10 months of the battle.
Few today realized that two years after the Battle of Verdun ended men were still dying in the area along the Meuse River.
It’s unclear from the limited sources available today – more than 90 years after Ravenel’s death – how he died. It does appear that it was many weeks before his family was notified.
One can only imagine the shock and grief his wife and the rest of his family must have felt at receiving the sad news after having just celebrated the end of the horrific four-year conflict, likely overjoyed at the mistaken belief that Ravenel had survived.
Ravenel’s body wasn’t returned to the US for nearly three years, when he was interred in the family burial plot at Stateburg’s Church of the Holy Cross in August 1921.
Ravenel and many of his compatriots have been at rest for more than 90 years; we would do well to put down the beer and boiled peanuts for at least a few minutes to reflect on their sacrifices on this Memorial Day – and every day we enjoy the freedoms they were willing to give their lives for – despite the decades that have passed.