Quantico National Cemetery – When I was a kid, we called May 30th “Decoration Day.” It was an occasion for Boy Scouts to be up before dawn and report, in uniform, to the American Legion hall. There, Cub Scouts would be paired with older Boy Scouts, organized into detachments of a dozen or so and issued bags of small American flags. Each group then “deployed” in station wagons and pickup trucks to local cemeteries and churchyards, where we placed Old Glory on every veteran’s grave. Later in the morning, there was a parade down Main Street, led by a color guard, the high-school band and ranks of veterans from World War I, World War II and the war of the moment, Korea. The Veterans of Foreign Wars sold red poppies to raise funds for the disabled. Politicians made speeches, and citizens prayed in public. It was a solemn annual event that taught us reverence for those who served and sacrificed for our country. It’s no longer so.
Begun as a local observance in the aftermath of the Civil War, the first national commemoration took place on May 30, 1868, at the direction of General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. Though his General Order No. 11 specified “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion” – meaning only Union soldiers – those who tended the burial sites at Arlington, VA, Gettysburg, PA and Vicksburg, MS, decided on their own to decorate the biers of both Union and Confederate war dead.
For five decades, the holiday remained essentially unchanged. But in 1919, as the bodies of young Americans were being returned to the U.S. from the battlefields of World War I, May 30th became a truly national event. It persisted as such until 1971, during Vietnam – the war America wanted to forget – when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed by Congress went into effect and turned Memorial Day into a “three-day weekend.” Since then, it’s become an occasion for appliance, mattress and auto sales, picnics, barbecues and auto races. Thankfully, there are some places besides Arlington National Cemetery where Memorial Day still is observed as a time to honor America’s war dead. Here in Triangle, VA, the Marines do it right.
Like all Marine Corps installations, every major structure at Quantico is named for a fallen fellow warrior. On May 13, hundreds of Marines and their families gathered to dedicate a new staff noncommissioned officer academy, named in honor of Sergeant Kenneth Conde Jr. Our FOX News War Stories team was embedded with his unit, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, in Ramadi, Iraq, during April 2004. Shortly after Sgt. Conde was wounded in action during a gunfight with enemy insurgents, I asked him why he refused to be medically evacuated. His response: “There is no other choice for a sergeant in the Marine Corps. You have to lead your Marines.”
Corporal Jared McKenzie, one of Conde’s Marines, said of his sergeant: “He always led from the front and never asked us to do something he wouldn’t do.” Sgt. Conde was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his valor and wounds in that engagement. On July 1, just eight days after his 23rd birthday, he was killed by an improvised explosive device.
At the dedication ceremony, Conde’s Battalion Commander, Colonel Paul Kennedy, described the young sergeant as “a courageous, inspiring leader.” The fallen Marine’s father, Kenneth Conde Sr. said, “I’m wearing my son’s combat boots. Though they fit, I could never fill them.”
Just down the road from Conde Hall is another testament to how the Marines honor America’s heroes. Quantico National Cemetery occupies 725 beautifully landscaped acres donated by the Marines to the Veteran’s Administration in 1977. This final resting place for more than 28,000 Americans who served in every branch of our armed forces is closely linked to some of the most crucial events in U.S. military history. The fledgling Continental Navy prepared to battle the British fleet here in 1775-76. During the Civil War, it was a blockade point and subsequently a logistics base during the bloody battle for Fredericksburg. In 1918, the Marines established a training base and an air station for units deploying to fight in World War I. Since 1941, Quantico has been the home of the Marines’ Officer Candidates School and The Basic School for all Marine officers. Today it is also home to the FBI and DEA academies.
On Memorial Day, an “Avenue of Honor” through Quantico National Cemetery is adorned with American flags. A “Memorial Pathway” displays monuments to Edson’s Raiders of WWII fame and recipients of the Purple Heart; memorials to the 1st, 4th and 6th Marine Divisions; and a monument erected to America’s veterans by the commonwealth of Virginia.
This is also the final resting place for a close friend – and a reminder of present day peril. On February 17, 1988, U.S. Marine Colonel William “Rich” Higgins was kidnapped in Beirut by Iranian-supported Hezbollah terrorists. They murdered him in July 1990. His remains were interred here in 1991. Rich Higgins’ gravesite is my Memorial Day reminder that the streets of heaven really are guarded by U.S. Marines. So are the streets of America.