Today is Memorial Day, an American holiday that celebrates the men and women who have lost their lives while fighting for our country (which differs from Veterans Day, where we honor all those who served in the military, whether they lost their lives or not). Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” which started in the days after the Civil War. People would decorate the graves of the fallen, and businesses closed. The holiday eventually evolved, after World War 1, to commemorate all the fallen soldiers in all battles, and later changed from May 30th to the last Monday of the month, in order to give federal employees a three day weekend. The symbol of all veterans, alive or dead, is a red poppy, which was one of the first plants to reappear after World War 1 on the battlefields of England. People wear them on both Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Unfortunately, I don’t believe people always remember what this holiday is really about. We rejoice in a day off from work or school and we don’t look at the point of the holiday, which is honestly heartbreaking. People died for our freedom and for our country, and people are in fact still dying.
According to Wikipedia: “As of July 7, 2018, there have been 2,440 U.S. military deaths in the War in Afghanistan. 1,856 of these deaths have been the result of hostile action. 20,320 American servicemembers have also been wounded in action during the war. In addition, there were 1,720 U.S. civilian contractor fatalities.” That is just one war, still being fought. If you tally all the other wars we’ve been a part of, the death count is astronomical. I am personally a pacifist, but I still honor those who have fallen, as we all should. They made a decision to fight and die for America and its citizens, and that’s not something anyone should overlook or take lightly.
And though Memorial Day is about honoring those who have fallen in battle, I want to talk about another battle that isn’t fought on the front-lines: PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and veteran suicide. PTSD can develop after a stressful event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience, both of which war is. Soldiers see their friends die, and soldiers have to fight and kill to survive. They experience bombings and drone attacks. They are constantly on edge, fight or flight, kill or be killed - it’s no wonder many soldiers have PTSD. Another contributing factor is sexual assault. Says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Among Veterans who use VA health care, about: 23 out of 100 women (or 23%) reported sexual assault when in the military. 55 out of 100 women (or 55%) and 38 out of 100 men (or 38%) have experienced sexual harassment when in the military.” That’s a shocking amount, and one that should make everyone’s stomach turn.
My dad had a friend named Jerry, who had fought in the Vietnam War and was a Prisoner of War while there. There was always something a little wild in his eyes, and he would constantly talk about his time in the war. Some of the things he said made my stomach turn, at the horrors other people can commit. He was a damaged man, and he never fully recovered from his time in Vietnam. There are many men and women like this: those that can’t move past what happened to them, and what they did, while in the war. That’s why our veterans need our help. We can listen to them, and mourn with them, but they need more than that.
So what can we do for our veterans? First, we can help them acknowledge that there is a problem - a mental health issue that can be remedied, with treatment. We can be willing to be still and listen when they need us to. Oftentimes, it’s admitting that they need help which is the problem. If we can help them to admit that there is a problem, that is a huge first step. Educate yourself and others about the nature of PTSD, and how it varies from person to person. Knowing what the problem is is the first hurdle. Encourage the veteran to seek help from the VA, which has a lot of inpatient and outpatient programs that could help. And finally, if you don’t personally know a veteran, donate to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (https://www.fallenheroesfund.org/) which helps veterans with traumatic brain injuries, or TBI, and PTSD.
On this Memorial Day, whether you go out of town or attend a parade, don’t forget to honor our fallen heroes. Wear a red poppy and contemplate the freedom we were given thanks to those who fell in service. Remember that, despite what you may feel about the war itself, veterans need our support and our love, not our disdain.