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)