(To commemorate Memorial Day, please read On Violence’s tributes to two fallen friends, Sergeant Lucas T. Beachnaw and Lieutenant Mark Daily.)
For years now, on Memorial Day, my mother has stood in front of folding tables handing out small red paper flowers. She’s not alone. Every year the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and their auxiliaries do the same all over the country. They’ve done so since 1922 and, according to their estimates, have given out some 14 million buddy poppies.
She’s been doing it for nearly a decade and I still had no idea why. I had to ask. But I couldn’t. She’d been doing it so long and so adamantly, I was afraid if I asked her why she had been passing out little paper poppies I would hurt her feelings. So I asked another veteran: Michael C.
He had no idea. I asked my father and brothers, also veterans. They had no idea. So eventually, I had to ask my mother, a veteran of Vietnam and a member of the VFW. She told me about a tradition.
In 1915, after watching his friend die, Lt. Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem, “In Flanders Field”:
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.
“In Flanders Field” quickly became iconic to the veterans causes and the poppies a symbol of those who sacrificed in the name of God and country. They are given freely on Memorial Day as tribute to soldiers and their families, a solemn reminder of the price paid for liberty. And from the donation received, the VFW raises some 15 million dollars to assist disabled veterans and the families of those killed in combat.
This Memorial Day, just like every Memorial Day since 1922, the VFW and their auxiliaries will be handing out millions of buddy poppies. For more information, to get in contact with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or to support the work they do with veterans and their families; visit their website.