As many people welcomed the unofficial start of the summer season by heading down to the Jersey Shore, some gathered Friday afternoon to pay homage to the true meaning of this holiday weekend.
“Our Veterans Memorial program is a tradition in Atlantic County that we are proud to honor. It is a heartfelt tribute to our military heroes, so many of whom sacrificed their lives for freedom and to protect our country,” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson stated. “It is also our honor to welcome Major General William Matz who has had an illustrious military career that has taken him around the globe.”
A highly decorated 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army who once served as the Executive Secretary to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Matz was the 28th annual Atlantic County Memorial Day program's keynote speaker. He told the gathering of veterans, local and county officials and residents that he felt it was only fitting to commemorate Memorial Day at the Atlantic County Veteran's Cemetery, surrounded by 3,700 grave sites, 2,700 of which are the final resting place for area veterans.
Memorial Day "is a day of ceremonial remembrance," he said. Originally called Declaration Day, Memorial Day began after the Civil War, when residents in several towns began laying flowers on veterans' grave sites. On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed the day Memorial Day.
At that time, it was those who served in the Civil War who were honored. It eventually included veterans who fought in the Spanish-American War, both World wars, Korea, Vietnam and every war or conflict since then.
Additionally, Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971) in almost every state. Some states -- most notably Florida, Alabama, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina -- have a separate day of remembrance for the Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War.
Nonetheless, regardless of the war, too often, the true meaning behind the holiday is forgotten, replaced as the unofficial start of the summer season with residents spending the weekend at the Jersey shore or having barbecues, Matz said.
He believe the real reason for the holiday should remain true within everyone's hearts.
"I challenge you to look into your hearts and find the true meaning of memorial," he said, noting that residents should "rejoice" in the knowledge the sacrifices veterans -- past and present -- have taken. "These American warriors didn't want to fight the world (when they've served). They wanted to liberate it."
Levinson said the county ceremony is usually held on a Friday so that it would not coincide with the municipal observances, many of which will be held on Monday. Matz also was the county's second choice, he said. Assemblyman Chris Brown,a Persian Gulf War veteran and a former Galloway Township municipal judge, was initially asked, but graciously stepped down when Matz was available
Levinson said Brown will be next year's keynote speaker, even though he will be up for re-election for state assembly, a situation they were trying to avoid by having him speak this year.
"I just hope everyone will come next year," Brown joked.