For many, Memorial Day means a three-day holiday weekend and the unofficial start of summer. But for Gold Star families, the immediate relatives of military members who died in battle or in support of military activities, the holiday is a poignant reminder of sacrifice.

“Memorial Day becomes a different holiday once you lose a loved one,” said Terry Meyer, whose only son, Army Spc. Brandon Meyer, died in 2008 while serving in Mosul, Iraq.

Meyer spoke Wednesday at USAA’s Memorial Day ceremony, where company employees and visitors wore red poppies in honor of those who have died in service of the nation. USAA’s annual program focuses on the significance of the national day of remembrance of those who died while serving in the armed forces.

Active military and veterans attend USAA's Memorial Day Ceremony.
Active military and veterans attend USAA’s Memorial Day Ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Dr. Carla Sizer, a USAA employee and retired U.S. Air Force veteran, served as moderator for the ceremony. Sizer, also a Gold Star mother, shared the story of her son, Army Spc. Dane Balcon, who died in 2007 while on active duty. She spoke of his strong sense of duty and service.

Sizer told the attendees how her son’s dedication to military service was reflected in his words: “Here I am, send me.”

Dr. Carla Sizer speaks as a Gold Star Mother to a large crowd at USAA's Memorial Day Ceremony.
Dr. Carla Sizer, a Gold Star mother, speaks at USAA’s Memorial Day Ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Candy Martin, president of the American Gold Star Mothers, shared stories of her only son, 1st Lt. Thomas Martin, who died in 2007 in Iraq. In her last conversation with him, she shared her reservations over his return to duty in Iraq. She also remembered his response:

“Mom, it’s what we do,” Martin told the audience. For her, his answer summarized what drives “the Americans who answer the call to service.”

Martin emphasized the purpose behind Memorial Day: a day of remembrance for the more than 1.3 million service members who died in wartime.

Candy Martin speaks as a Gold Star Mother to a large crowd at USAA's Memorial Day Ceremony.
Gold Star mother Candy Martin speaks to a large crowd at USAA’s Memorial Day Ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Veterans Day commemorates the service of our nation’s military veterans, while Armed Services Day is when we pay tribute to men and women who serve the United States’ armed forces.

Martin cautioned those assembled on what not to say on Memorial Day.

“Never say, ‘Happy Memorial Day,’” she said.

The somber reason for this national observance is to remember those lost while serving in wartime.

“Each day is a Memorial Day for Gold Star families,” Martin said.

The red poppies worn this time of year are a symbol of this remembrance. National Poppy Day is the Friday before Memorial Day.

In early 1915, shortly after losing his friend in World War I’s Battle of Ypres in the West Flanders area of Belgium, Canadian doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote the now-famous poem In Flanders Fields. Inspired by the sight of poppies growing in battle-scarred fields, McCrae’s images of poppies in his poem led to the flower being adopted as a symbol of remembrance of those lost in battle.

By September 1920 the American Legion Auxiliary, a U.S. wartime veterans organization, adopted the bright red Flanders poppies as a global symbol of remembrance. It is the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) of the U.S. They are distributed in exchange for donations on Memorial Day and throughout the year to help raise funds for veterans.

The VFW Buddy Poppy program provides compensation to the veterans who assemble the poppies, provides financial assistance for maintaining state and national veterans’ rehabilitation and service programs, and partially supports the VFW National Home For Children.

“We use the proceeds from the buddy poppy program as donations to benefit veterans in several ways,” said Brian Duffy, the VFW national commander and a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant. “One is to support a home for veterans and their families at the VFW National Home for Children, which is available to anyone in the military who needs support. The other is by helping veterans in rehab, such as by buying a guide dog, or a specialized all-terrain wheelchair.”

Poppies line the entrance of the Memorial Day Ceremony at USAA for attendees to take.
Poppies line the entrance of the Memorial Day Ceremony at USAA for attendees to take. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Duff said the VFW centers provide some income for disabled veterans or veterans in need who assemble the poppies. Nearly 3.5 million American Legion Auxiliary poppies were distributed last year, raising $2.1 million.

USAA has created a digital poppy wall where online visitors can dedicate a poppy to the memory of a fallen service member. To view the digital poppy wall, click here.

To listen to USAA employees recite In Flanders Field, you may watch the video here.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.