When I was a kid, Memorial Day didn’t mean a whole lot to me. It wasn’t even really a stand-alone day. In young Justin’s eyes, it was “Memorial Day Weekend”, a final three-day weekend before the end of the school year.

I remember family events for Memorial Day, like cookouts, trips to state parks, wiffeball games. That’s what Memorial Day was in young Justin’s eyes — a more modest 4th of July type of celebration before the actual 4th of July.

I’m sure our teachers spoke to us about the meaning of Memorial Day then, but I don’t remember for sure. Young kids tend to tune that stuff out — unless they know it’s going to be on a test at a later date. And while I wish I would have understood better then, I also recognize that it’s unfair to expect kids to really grasp to significance of such a day. Unless they have a current or former member of the armed forces in their family, most kids have never even met someone who has served.

And while history books are full of stories of those killed fighting for America’s freedom in war, those stories are still painted with a broad brush. They rarely give you specific names. They don’t give you the faces. They don’t give you the life stories of those who lost their lives fighting so that we don’t have to lose ours.

Even as I got older, I still didn’t really get it or put in the time to try to. I remember interning at the Chicago Sun-Times in the summer of 2011. Memorial Day was one of the worst days of that internship. I was one of only a few members of the sports desk required to work that day, and the air conditioning had been turned off in our building on a 90-degree Chicago day.

I was a rising junior in college at the time, and yet I still allowed Memorial Day to be about me. About what I had to endure as a young intern at a major newspaper.

Now, though, as a 26-year-old, I finally get it. I didn’t wake up on this Memorial Day with a smile on my face because I have the day off from work. Instead, I awoke in a somber mood, and at various points I’ve had to sit down and allow the tears to stream down my face.

I work full-time at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division now, and while it’s largely a civilian Navy base, I have had the privilege of meeting and talking to many veterans from a number of our armed forces. I’ve had the chance to hear their stories, to hear their voices tremble when they speak of friends lost in battle.

I find myself thinking of those veterans today, and what this day must be like for them each year. Memorial Day is intended to remember those who died while serving, to remember those who sacrificed their lives so that we may have the chance to live in freedom.

I think many of us too often forget the true meaning of days like today. But we shouldn’t ever forget. Not ever. We must remember those who died protecting our freedom. We must pray for their families and their fellow soldiers that survived. And we must thank those who have served or are serving for their service — even though they won’t want to hear it.

You’re supposed to say “Thank you for your service” on Veteran’s Day, not Memorial Day¬†— but I think we should say it every day. We don’t need special occasions or Federal Holidays to thank our veterans and our current warfighters. Try to remember that their service has secured our freedom not just on days like Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, but every single day of our lives.

I am so proud to be an American, and I am so very humbled and moved by the thought of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the freedom of this great nation.

To all of the families, friends and veterans who have lost someone while serving — I am praying for you today. I am taking the time to remember them, and I want you to know that I will never forget about their sacrifice — not today, not next Memorial Day, and not any day in between.