Memorial Day: Honoring those lost in battle, those still serving

Memorial Day is meant as a time to remember and honor those killed in America's wars. But it's also a reminder that those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan need their nation's help.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
People make rubbings of a name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during the Rolling Thunder ride in Washington Sunday. The event is organized to show support for veterans past and present, and those who have fallen in war or are missing in action.

Around the country today, Americans are observing Memorial Day in different ways – not all of it just barbecues and ball games.

US Coast Guard veteran Abby Beck took her 7-year old son Levi and other Cub Scouts to place American flags on the graves of soldiers at a military cemetery in Newport Beach, Calif.

"I'm trying to teach him the importance of what we're doing here today, and what it really means to be a veteran and to give your life for your country,” Ms. Beck told the Los Angeles Times. “We're lucky because of these people."

Jim and Carla Hogan, whose son Marine Corps LCPL Donald Hogan was killed in Afghanistan in 2009 (where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the US military’s second highest honor), are working to build their “Socks for Heroes” programs.

“In the time period that followed that tragedy, we spent a lot of time with the Marines who served with him. During each of our conversations with these men, we asked them what they needed the most,” they write on their web site. “Speaking to over 100 field Marines, the answer was uniform: ‘Send us socks.’”

In two years, “Socks for Heroes” has sent 196,000 pairs to the men and women in desert war zones, where laundry facilities are scarce.

In Washington Saturday, hundreds of motorcyclists took part in the 26th annual Rolling Thunder “Ride for Freedom” from the Pentagon to the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial where speakers focused on POW/MIA issues.

Thousands more are visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, leaving mementos at the base of the black granite wall, reaching up to trace the name of a battle buddy or loved one – one of the 58,195 names inscribed there. And at American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War Posts, vets are gathering today for ceremonies, speeches, and parades honoring those lost in military service.

They won’t be marching in Beverly, Massachusetts, however, where the city has canceled its Memorial Day parade. Marching has become difficult for many older veterans, and many younger veterans are first responders working that day, officials say.

It’s also true that there are fewer vets marching in parades across the United States today because there are fewer vets overall.

Since 9/11, it may feel like a perpetual state of war, but it’s a relatively small portion of the US who do the fighting – or even know somebody who does. Among the nation’s professional and political elite, the figure may be even smaller.

There are exceptions, of course. Former Sen. Bob Dole in World War II. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Vietnam. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who was shot down and lost both legs flying a helicopter in Iraq.

Memorial Day dates back to the end of the Civil War, when it was called “Decoration Day.”

A special order declared that May 30 should be set aside "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land."

Since the end of the draft – and the end of the very divisive war in Vietnam – the public attitude toward veterans (and the military generally) has improved greatly. You can see it in the people who gather in the middle of the night at airports to welcome GIs returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Though the wars may not be particularly popular, for most Americans “separating the warrior from the war” has become a lot easier.

In war and in peace, Memorial Day is meant to remember and honor the many thousands of American servicemen and women lost in armed conflict. In Iraq and Afghanistan so far, that’s been 6,714.

But the situation for war-weary vets returning from a conflict that began when many of them were still school boys and girls remains extremely difficult for many.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) – the so-called signature injuries of Iraq and Afghanistan – continue to affect thousands. Suicide rates are troublesome, as are higher-than-average rates of homelessness and unemployment.

“On this Memorial Day, as we remember those who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces, it is also a time to remember those who served and are still living,” write psychiatrist Harry Croft and retired military officer Sydney Savion, who have worked with thousands of vets, in Forbes online. “The military members and veterans with physical wounds are easy to spot, but those with the ‘invisible war wounds’ … can be just as severely affected.”

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