PENTAGON - For decades, the red poppy has been an international symbol for remembering those lost in battle, and on Friday, the United States kicked off the Memorial Day weekend with its first National Poppy Day.
Organized by the American Legion, a wartime veterans service organization with more than 2 million members, National Poppy Day included remembrance activities in cities and towns across the country.
In Washington, the day's schedule included a poppy-themed motorcycle ride and a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Memorial.
Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Ed Byers, the event's keynote speaker, told VOA the day is a chance to reflect on how something amazing can grow and flourish out of tragedy. "We should never solely mourn our fallen, but should do our utmost to celebrate their life and remember what it was that made them truly special," he said.
Byers received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award given for gallantry above and beyond the call of duty, for his actions while rescuing an American hostage in Afghanistan in 2012.
The poppy became a symbol of casualties of war after Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote a poem about the sight of red poppies growing over soldier graves following World War I.
The American Legion tradition of wearing poppies dates to 1920.
Several nations around the world wear the poppy on Remembrance Day, observed in most countries on November 11, to honor those killed in the line of duty.
One of the most vivid uses of the poppy is in London, where in 2014 the British government surrounded its famed Tower of London with ceramic poppies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I.
Memorial Day in the United States will be observed this year on Monday. The federal holiday is a chance to honor those who died while serving in the country's armed forces, and is seen by many as the unofficial start of the summer season.