Memorial Day: A Service Member Speaks

Justin Polayes is a 2004 Staples High School graduate. Unlike many of his classmates, he entered the military. This Memorial Day, he reflects on that life — and this day.

As a kid in Westport, Memorial Day was a great time. I walked in the parade as a Little Leaguer, Boy Scout, Bedford Middle School band member, what have you.

The holiday was the start of when dinners moved to the back yard, and life happened at Compo Beach. It was a safe, happy, relaxing day, without much thought of its origins.

A classic Westport Mmeorial Day photo. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

In college the holiday was much of the same. It was about summer starting, and usually a road trip home for cookouts and to see family and friends. As a young adult I became a bit more aware of what Memorial Day means. I saw wreaths being laid, tributes on TV, and more on social media.

But it wasn’t until 2 years into my military career that Memorial Day really meant something for me.

My first holiday came in the middle of grueling training and selection. I used that extra day to sleep and rest some injuries.

However, by that second Memorial Day as an active duty member I had already lost friends in combat. It was like a light switch flipped. The entire meaning of the holiday changed. Cookouts and beach lounging were replaced with visiting graves and “memorial workouts” to honor my fallen brothers and sisters.

Justin Polayes (left) spent one Memorial Day on duty in East Africa.

While living in the United Kingdom, the difference between our Memorial Day and their Remembrance Day was noticeable. I lived in a great little town surrounded by families with little children. All the kids wore red poppy pins on their shirts. On Remembrance Day, most families without any military affiliation went to a national military cemetery or war memorial. At the very least almost everyone watched the queen lay a wreath at the Cenotaph (war memorial in London). Once their respects were paid, cookouts and garden parties could begin.

For the last 5 years I’ve been based in Washington D.C. I live only a few miles from Arlington National Cemetery. My Memorial Day tradition now isn’t parades or beach cookouts; it is paying respects to friends.

In lots 62 and 65 alone, my wife (who also served) and I have 19 friends and fellow service members laid to rest. Walking those hallowed grounds on Memorial Day is a true pleasure, something everyone should experience in their lifetime. Politics go out the window. Petty gripes and complaints about daily life mean nothing. You feel small in the face of so many white marble headstones.

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo/Justin Polayes)

There is nothing wrong with how Westport celebrates Memorial Day. However, as a former resident looking inward from afar it does seem the celebrations are more about what we have and not about what we lost.

Westporters have given their lives in service for this country since the founding of our country. A handful are still in harm’s way today. Please take a moment to remember those heroes this Memorial Day.

And please teach the younger generation why.

Youngsters play at Veteran’s Green, after Westport’s 2018 Memorial Day ceremony. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

9 responses to “Memorial Day: A Service Member Speaks

  1. Richard Lawson

    I WONDER IF WESTPORT IS STILL AS IT WAS FOR THIS YOUNG MAN?
    IT SEEMS TO ME THAT THIS TOWN HAS MORPHED INTO A RESIDENCE FOR THOSE WHO CARE FOR NOTHING MORE THAN SATISFYING
    THEIR SELF ABSORBING WAYS; THAT BEING RUDE. AND PETTY!
    A GREAT LETTER, WRITTEN BY THIS YOUNG MAN!

  2. Rebecca Ellsley

    Thank you Justin Polayes for all your service and all others that have and are serving. I also want to thank all of today’s medical,fire,police, Ems, pharmacies,healthcare, grocery,truckers,farmers etc workers for helping in our war for today. Stay healthy stay safe and THANK YOU

  3. Craig Clark CPT USAR SigC 1972-1987

    With the draft long behind us, the number of citizens who have served has decreased to approximately 1% of the population. It is hard for many to understand the sacrifices endured by today’s military members and their families. Additionally, Westport is insulated by its location and has little to no interaction with the military culture. I write only to honor my brothers and sisters in the military. All gave some, some gave all

  4. Barbara Wanamaker

    Wow Justin. Just Wow. Thank you for your service.

  5. Thank you for your service Justin!

  6. A very sobering and touching letter. Thank you, Justin, for your service.

  7. Alan Phillips

    Thank you Justin. Very Much.

  8. Jeffrey White

    Thank you Justin for reminding us of the real meaning of Memorial Day, and regrettably the comments are correct that for most people living here life serving in the military is too remote and too unimaginable. Some of the finest people I served with many years ago in the Army were the Viet Nam and Korean combat veterans that trained us. They had a remarkable focus on what was important and what you needed to do to survive and get through the next task. Those lessons have never been lost on me and for that i am forever grateful to them and people like yourself.

    I do have one suggestion that could help bridge that cultural gap between Westport and far away places that the miliitary have to go to. Years ago we regularly had a fly over on Memorial Day during the parade, The kids stared in wonder at the planes. I can remeber one year, one of the Little Leaguers, maybe it was you, asked me what it was. I responded, I think it’s an A 10 Warthog, makes a lotta noise, when I realized that it was a lot more. I paused, and said, It’s up there so we can be down here.

    Perhaps it’s time to bring those planes back as well as having more current veterans join us in number for the next parade.God bless you and thank you for your service.

  9. Mark Bachmann

    Excellent article, Justin – thank you for it and for your service.

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