Memorial Day weekend has become the unofficial start of summer. A time when our thoughts naturally turn to long, restful days at the lake, cookouts with friends and neighbors, pool parties, and family vacations.

It is also an opportunity for many major retailers to promote special “Memorial Day” sales. Today’s Tulsa World included circulars for Belks, Dillards, Sears, Kohls, JC Penneys, and even Big Lots. While I understand that these companies are simply trying to make a profit with the underlying theme of American patriotism, I wish they would leave this holiday alone. Having a special sale on outdoor grills, hand bags, and summer clothes is perfectly appropriate–just don’t tie it to what should be a solemn observance of Americans and their sacrifice (in my humble opinion anyway).

Originally called Decoration Day, from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, Memorial Day is a day for remembrance of those who have died in service to our country. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868 to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union sailors and soldiers.

During that first national celebration, former Union Gen. and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.

We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.

James A. Garfield
May 30, 1868 Arlington National Cemetery

Several years ago our nation lost Frank Buckles of West Virginia, the last veteran from World War I. The number of World War II veterans is also shrinking at a rapid rate. While we still have these great Americans with us, it remains a civic duty to recognize their service and sacrifice to our country.

As with Independence Day, Memorial Day is a day for all of us to set aside our many differences and focus instead on our common beliefs and heritage, while honoring those who died in service of our great nation.

Music has always been an important part of this observance. Over the years, quite a few musicians have shared their talents to perform poignant, often emotional tributes to our military men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Here is my short list of favorite Memorial Day songs. If you choose to watch the videos, grab some tissues in advance. Please leave links to your favorites in the comments. I would enjoy listening to them.

“I Drive Your Truck,” Lee Brice

Telling a story of a parent who’s mourning a child killed in battle, this song strikes deep. I cannot even imagine the pain. It’s a simple, heartbreaking image: A father continues to drive his son’s truck as a way of easing the pain of losing him to the war in Afghanistan. The song, based on the true story of Paul Monti and his son, Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti, won Song of the Year at the 2014 Academy of Country Music Awards.

“I Won’t Let Go,” Rascal Flatts

The lyrics to this song are intentionally vague to relate to a wide audience, yet the video clearly connects to the loss of a loved one in service of our country.

“If You’re Reading This,” Tim McGraw

This one gets to me. For those who have served in a war zone, the idea of writing a “goodbye letter” to loved ones is incredibly difficult. What can you possibly say to adequately convey your love while attempting to soften the tremendous loss felt by the person or persons reading your words? I am blessed that my wife and children never had to read mine.

“Dress Blues,” Jason Isbell/Drive-By Truckers

Beautiful, bitter, and sad, this 2006 ballet has not been widely heard. The song is dedicated to Jason’s high school buddy who joined the Marines at 18, fought in the Middle East and never returned home. The refrain is compact and evocative: “You never planned on the bombs in the sand or sleeping in your dress blues.” Whew!

“Some Gave All,” Billy Ray Cyrus

Though not nearly as well-known as “Achy Breaky Heart,” I enjoyed this song by Billy Ray Cyrus much more. The chorus sums up the purpose of Memorial Day well:

“All Gave Some, Some Gave All
Some stood through for the red, white and blue
And some had to fall
And if you ever think of me
Think of all your liberties and recall
Some Gave All”

“Hymn to the Fallen,” John Williams

A moving instrumental which highlights American cemeteries around the world along with the number of Americans who gave their lives on foreign soil in defense of our nation.

“Proud to be an American,” Lee Greenwood

Any list of Memorial Day songs has to include this classic. I first heard this song in April 1991 as a Marine Corps Captain during the flight home from the Persian Gulf War. The pilot came on the intercom and told us that “this song” was all over the radio while we were overseas. After eight months away from my family, let’s just say this song struck a chord with me and many other Marines on the plane that day.

It was the only time I ever saw a General cry. It will always be my favorite.

“And I’m proud to be and American,
where at least I know I’m free.
And I wont forget the men who died,
who gave that right to me.

And I gladly stand up,
next to you and defend her still today.
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
God bless the USA.”

Finally, I want to remind everyone about the “National Moment of Remembrance.” This resolution was passed in Dec 2000 and asks that at 3 p.m. local time each Memorial Day, for all Americans “to voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to Taps.”

God Bless our fallen heroes and their families this Memorial Day!