Standing on a podium near the south steps of the Utah State Capitol on Monday, Gov. Spencer Cox referred to the blue skies and blazing sun. He conjured burgers and hot dogs on the grill. He spoke of kids getting a day off from school, adults getting a day off from work and families going shopping to take advantage of the incredible deals.
Memorial Day has become the unofficial start of summer for many.
“It’s a perfect day for a barbecue. Apparently it’s a good day to buy a mattress. I saw this morning that Men’s Wearhouse has his suits on sale. … And I think that’s what most Americans are doing today,” Cox said. “And I don’t think that’s why this holiday was made a holiday.”
Surrounded by American flags waving in the gentle breeze and flanked by the Utah National Guard 23rd Army Band’s brass ensemble, Cox attempted to bring home an important memory.
Memorial Day was, and still is, about remembering and honoring military personnel who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
“Remembering takes work. “Patriotism takes work,” Cox said. “Being American comes with a responsibility. And I worry that far too many of us forget the work of being an American.”
The Memorial Day memorial service at the Capitol Monday morning was an exercise in emphasizing that the current iteration of the holiday may be too related to the issue Americana and not enough about America.
The stark confrontation came with two US Representatives from Utah, Blake Moore and Burgess Owens, seated alongside Maj. Gen. Michael J. Turley of the Utah National Guard. And Cox and his wife Abby sit next to Gary Harter, executive director of the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs (UDVMA).
Honors for fallen soldiers during the morning event included a ceremonial wreath, a 21-gun salute and a trumpet player playing “taps.”
Moore told of one of his grandfathers, who served as a medic in the South Pacific Army and was seriously injured while clearing a road when he was hit by shrapnel. He also shared the story of his father, who served in the National Guard, once lamenting that “none of my children took the opportunity to serve in any way,” before subsequently moving to tears when Blake Moore revealed it Become an officer in the United States Foreign Service at the United States Department of State.
“I’ve served in a unique way — I was a civilian in Intelligence,” Moore said. “…There is a sense of patriotism that we all have as Americans, but that has a heightened element when one has had a chance to serve. And while I avoid any example of stolen bravery – I was a civilian – it still gave me the opportunity to interact and train with the bravest in our country.”
He proudly noted that his first bill in Congress would be to erect a Medal of Honor memorial in the National Mall area of Washington DC. And that his office participates in the Veterans History Project, which interviews veterans and preserves their words in the Library of Congress.
He also somberly noted the mental and emotional toll military service can take on those who make it back.
“We have 17 military members – family members, active duty military personnel or veterans – who commit suicide every day,” Moore said. “What we can do as civilians is know, understand and interact.”
Corey Pearson, associate director of the UDVMA, noted that since less than 1% of the US population serves in the military, veterans may feel isolated. He encouraged veterans to do regular “buddy checks” with other vets they know and urged friends and family of the veterans to be careful, be willing to listen and help if needed.
Pearson also reminded vets of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Cox, meanwhile, addressed the importance of the armed forces by referencing a speech he gave to students at 29 high schools in 29 counties across the state.
True American exceptionalism, he argues, is that this is the greatest nation in the history of the world, “because we were the first and only nation founded on the ‘profound’ and ‘radical’ idea that all People everywhere are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights “from above”.
Such radical belief, he continued, is also dangerous because it poses “a threat to evil around the world.”
He described the war in Ukraine as an act of violence “by Vladimir Putin, an evil dictator” with the aim of gaining and consolidating more power.
“What we believe is a threat to people like him, and it was a threat to every dictator in the history of the world,” Cox said. “And so we need courageous men and women to protect this right, to protect this idea, to protect this sacred idea that we have been endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
“Today we pay tribute to those men and women who have made the greatest sacrifice to protect and promote this radical idea,” he concluded.