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On Memorial Day, remembering the fallen and what the day really means

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Les Kennedy, a Vietnam War veteran, explains the true meaning behind Memorial Day.

DENVER — The plaintive call of a lone bugle sounding taps, the flutter of flags, the loved ones bending low in silence to place flowers and mementos on graves.

They all serve to remind us that Memorial Day means much more than barbecues and a break from work.

"It's not just a three-day weekend," said Les Kennedy, 83, a Vietnam veteran.

The true meaning behind Memorial Day

Kennedy, dressed in a crisp white honor-guard shirt, gazed out over the ranks of marble tombstones at Fort Logan National Cemetery in southwest Denver.

"I see a garden of stone filled with something that's not going to grow, but it's going to always be here," he said.

Kennedy said he was a U.S. Army airborne-infantry platoon leader in the Vietnam War. For him, Memorial Day is personal.

"I had the honor to lead a group of soldiers in combat," and so the day "means more to me because of those that I ... lost in combat. I honor them every day. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of them. They were just a great group of young soldiers."

He talked of seeing "17-, 18-, 19-year-olds die face down in the mud, which is not a pleasant thing to see, or be responsible for."

Mourners leave flowers at Fort Logan National Cemetery.

Tallies vary widely, but since the Revolution, well over one million American service members have died in wars and conflicts. 

Fort Logan is part of a network of national cemeteries where millions of America's veterans and their spouses are buried.

The original Fort Logan Army post was named for Gen. John A. Logan, who in 1868 issued an order designating a day in May "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country" during the Civil War, which had ended three years earlier.  

What was originally known as Decoration Day was renamed Memorial Day in World War II and expanded to honor all Americans who lost their lives in military service. 

This year, the national cemeteries are hosting their first public Memorial Day ceremonies since 2019. The commemorations were not open to the public in 2020 or 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tallies vary widely, but since the Revolution, well over one million American service members have died in wars and conflicts.

Memorial Day ceremonies are planned Monday at Fort Logan as well as at Fort Lyon National Cemetery in Las Animas and Pikes Peak National Cemetery in Colorado Springs. Click here for links to details

Kennedy hopes that everyone pauses on Memorial Day to remember those who paid the ultimate price, but he recognizes that not everyone appreciates or understands the day's special significance.

"If they don't know, I feel sorry," he said. "... But I don't go out and try to tell someone what Memorial Day is. My family knows what it is. My friends know what it is. All the veterans that I serve with out here [in the honor guard], they know what it is. ... But if we're going to try to make the public understand, it's got to be a broader base than somebody like me telling them what Memorial Day means."

Despite Kennedy's painful memories of fallen comrades, as he stands among the long rows of graves, he finds uplift in Memorial Day.

"It is a happy day, because we are remembering ... It's a happy day because you're here paying reverence to those individuals that have paid the price."

Brian Willie is the content production manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at

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