In the aftermath of the Civil War, the nation struggled to make sense of the deaths of more than 600,000 people. Initial remembrances centered on marking the graves of the fallen as part of what came to be called Decoration Day. During the first years after the war, communities in the South and the North came to understand their losses by citing the actions of their enemy.
Over time, this framework gave way to a commemoration in which the entire nation paused to reflect — and to remember the deaths of those who have served our republic as sacrifices made for the collective ideals of the nation.
Just as the holiday of Memorial Day evolved out of a time of divisiveness, we are now in a time of deep polarization. Uniquely though, how we support our veterans, transitioning military personnel, and their families remains an issue that can bring us together.
Memorial Day is one of a few days each year in which the attention of the country turns to our veterans. As such, it is an opportunity for us to reflect on what communities can do to make a lasting tribute in honor of both the lives of those who have died, as well as the ideals for which they died.
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While we honor those who have passed, we must care for the living. It was this spirit that was behind President Lincoln’s statement, inscribed on the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan.”
While the VA has a large responsibility for providing for our veterans, the responsibility also falls to each of us. It is not enough to say “thank you for your service,” attend parades, issue proclamations and applaud veterans and military personnel in public settings.
If we are to truly honor our veterans, communities must act.
What are the right first steps? What is already happening in your community? What is known about the veterans in your community? These are three imperative first questions.
One of the most challenging aspects of serving veterans is identifying them. It is broadly understood that about one-third of people exiting the military stay near their last installation, one-third return to their home county and the remaining one-third disperse to unknown areas. Re-orienting municipally-gathered data to help find those who have served is a key step that local officials can take. This step can help ensure these persons not only get the benefits they have earned, but are also connected to community needs and opportunities for people with valuable experience, knowledge and training.
Many veterans do not self-identify, so as residents interact with municipal services, ask them, “Have you or a member of your family ever served in the military?” rather than “Are you a veteran?”
With better data about veterans, local leaders can convene public and private partners to link them to opportunities, services and benefits.
On Memorial Day morning, the flag is to be set in the half-staff position, in remembrance of the more than one million men and women who have given their lives in service of our country. At noon, the flag is raised to full-staff, symbolizing the resolve not to let their sacrifices be in vain. More than ever, taking deliberate steps to improve how we support veterans presents local officials with the opportunity to lead their communities on a mission everyone can get behind.
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Program Manager for Housing at the National League of Cities (NLC), connecting local leaders to best practices and efforts working to ensure all veterans have a safe place to call home. He has worked at the local, state, and federal levels on homelessness and housing for more than 15 years.