05/30/2011 03:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Meaning Of Memorial Day: Veterans Reflect

This story was reported in collaboration with our partners at

* * * * *

What does Memorial Day mean to you? Anthony Borrelli answered that question the other day in an American Legion post in Brecksville, Ohio. Borrelli said he served in the military in the Vietnam era and had friends who died in that war.

"We're really paying homage to the people that died for this country," he said. "And that's really all that Memorial Day means to me." He stressed the word "all."

It's hard to imagine there were many veterans who didn't spend some time this weekend thinking about those who've died.

Some got together with friends from the war. Some participated in formal ceremonies, where local politicians gave speeches and soldiers in full dress took down old, beaten-up flags and replaced them with new ones.

In Brecksville, Borrelli said his plans were centered on the American Legion Post 196. "We march, I run the rifle squad, and we come back here and have lunch," he said.

He smiled, adding, "That is my home -- Memorial Day weekend," and then reiterated that the day was about remembering people who had made "the ultimate sacrifice for us."

"It's a sad day for us," he said.

A traveling Vietnam War memorial -- a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. -- stopped in New Lenox, Ill. A man contemplated the wall of names quietly, his hands shoved into his coat pockets.

A reporter described the scene: "The cold wind blew his graying hair. The man stood silently, staring at one panel, perhaps at one name. He did not want to talk. He did not want to give his name. No photos, no glory, no attention."

Nearby in Skokie, Ill., Don Niles, a 61-year-old veteran who joined the military when he was 17 and did several tours during the Vietnam War with the Army's renowned 101st Airborne Division, met up with a new member of the division, a 27-year-old family friend named Adrian Bucur.


Asked to reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day, the elder soldier said, "People are going to get together, go on picnics or barbeque. But I hope they take a second to think about what Memorial Day means, so it doesn't become an empty holiday."

In Easton, Conn., a 96-year-old veteran named Hugh Pederson recalled fighting in the World War II. In the winter of 1944-1945 -- the coldest winter in Germany in 40 years -- he said he had three pair of socks that he rotated every day in the field: "I would keep one pair under my helmet, one pair under my uniform near my chest and one pair on my feet."

"We had no blankets, just five-foot sleeping bags," he said. "If you slept with your feet outside the bag, you woke up with black frost bitten feet that had to be cut, so I slept with my boots on in the sleeping bag and stayed as warm as I could."

Pederson fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle for Bastogne, Normandy and the Battle of Mortain. He received six medals, including a Purple Heart. He keeps them in a wood-framed case in his home.

"The average stay of someone being in A Company was 30 days. Within 30 days you were either missing, captured, dead or wounded. I saw eight replacements come on one Sunday and four were carried out four hours later."

He spent 140 days with the company.

Asked to explain the meaning of Memorial Day, Pederson answered in the straightforward way of someone who'd never questioned its significance: "Memorial Day is a day when we honor all of the veterans who have died since the Civil War until today in Afghanistan."