The military and veteran-oriented insurance and financial services company USAA is hosting an exhibit over Memorial Day weekend that pays tribute to the more than 645,000 U.S. service members who gave their lives in service to the country since the First World War.
The Poppy Wall, commissioned by USAA, is an 8-1/2-foot-tall, 133-foot-long display of more than 645,000 velvet poppy flowers encased in acrylic, with each individual poppy representing a U.S. service member who gave their life in service to the country since the First World War. The memorial will be on display at the National Mall in Washington D.C. from Friday until Sunday. In an interview with American Military News, U.S. Army veteran and USAA President of Marketing Eric Engquist explained the significance of the Poppy Wall.
“The sheer magnitude and emotional impact in seeing contextualized numbers of fallen is really a sight to behold and really impactful and very emotional,” Engquist said of the display.
Since the First World War, the poppy flower has served as a symbol of remembrance for those who died in battle. The flower became a popular symbol of remembrance for fallen troops in 1915 after Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae visited the sight of the Second Battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium, where his friend and fellow soldier Lt. Alexis Helmer was killed. While visiting the battlefield, McCrae was taken aback by the poppy flowers, which flourished in the freshly churned soil of the war-scarred earth.
McCrae went on to write “In Flanders Fields” to commemorate his friend and the other troops who died in the fighting. The poem reads:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
McCrae’s poem would serve as the inspiration for American humanitarian Moina Michael, who wrote the response poem “We Shall Keep the Faith.”
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Michael’s poem helped to further cement the tradition of wearing a poppy in remembrance of fallen troops. Poppies are worn on Memorial Day in the U.S., while British commonwealth nations typically wear poppies on Remembrance Day (which is celebrated on Nov. 11, the same day the U.S. recognizes Veterans Day).
Engquist said USAA originally created the Poppy Wall as an internal commemoration for the company, but said they decided to bring the display to the public because “we saw an opportunity to really create a little bit of education across the country for the true meaning behind Memorial Day.”
“Most take [Memorial Day] as the advent of summer, backyard barbecues and mattress sales,” Engquist said. “While we fully expect that everyone should enjoy their time and beautiful weather with friends and family over the weekend, we want to educate them, to just take a moment to think about the true essence of the holiday and what the real reason is for that.”
Engquist said about 30 USAA volunteers will accompany the memorial on the National Mall to help educate and answer questions for the public about the significance of the display.
“Memorial Day is a time for all Americans to pause and pay respect to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country,” USAA CEO and president Wayne Peacock said. “USAA is honored to return to the National Mall with the Poppy Wall of Honor to help raise awareness of the true meaning of the holiday and provide an opportunity for visitors to remember the 645,000 service members who have died in service to our nation since World War I began.”
This year will be the fourth year USAA has been able to host the Poppy Wall display at the National Mall. The company was unable to host the physical display for the last two years due to COVID-19 related restrictions, but did host a virtual version of the display.
“It’s an honor to be back and we’re grateful,” Engquist said.
In addition to the display on the National Mall in Washington D.C., USAA is hosting two smaller mobile versions of the Poppy Wall display at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, Calif. and at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio. The virtual version of the display on their website.