Take time to honor the living, as well

Each Memorial Day, American flags around the world are lowered to half-staff.  It’s a quiet gesture that reminds us of those former defenders who are no longer with us.

At noon, though, the flags are returned to the top of their poles, symbolizing the continuity of this nation.  That gesture is an affirmation that the nation lives on, and is not in mourning.

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Symbolism aside, the last Monday in May is the most solemn holiday for most American veterans.  The day is celebrated at cemeteries and town squares – at  barbecues and baseball games.  It is an opportunity to pause for a moment to reflect on the service and sacrifice of millions of Americans who risked their lives to ensure our freedoms.  It’s a time for us to issue one more “Thank You” to those who cannot celebrate with us.

Since the last quarter of the 19th Century, that has been the case.  Graves are made tidy, and veterans tell their stories to their grandchildren, and the cycle continues in times of war and peace.

For nearly nine years this generation’s service men and women have been going into combat, with predictable costs -- many deaths and an astonishing number of life altering injuries that would likely have been fatal just a generation ago.  So, I propose that this year as we remember those who have died, we pay additional attention to those who return changed forever.

Of course, I mean no disrespect to those, like my father, we honor on Memorial Day, but each day, I am reminded about the other casualties of combat.  When I visit a military hospital, I see young men and women who are facing a life they could not anticipate.  I see their wounds and witness their limitless spirit as they work to recover.  And, I wonder.

I wonder what will happen when the sergeant leaves the service and security of his surroundings wherever he is recovering, and goes back to a town he left years before.  It is very likely that the people in his community haven’t been thinking about Iraq or Afghanistan or the men and women who serve there.  How will he be welcomed back?

I wonder about the former helicopter pilot who was shot down and has been learning how to walk again.  Does the community she left remember her?  Will she be welcomed home not only as a hero, but also as a productive citizen?

This nation has gone through radical changes since the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in how it responds to its troops.  For whatever reason, our troops today are accorded the respect they have earned, and do not face the antipathy many Vietnam veterans experienced.  That’s a good thing, and it reflects well on Americans.

But one thing is apparent to those of us who deal with our service men and women nearly everywhere they serve.  This nation has not come to grips with the fact that hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens are serving in harm’s way, and sometimes they become a casualty of war.

Those who serve ask little of us.  A simple expression of thanks and to be accepted and given the chance to prove their worth is often more than enough.  They want to continue to contribute.

So, on this Memorial Day, we honor those no longer with us.  But, let’s also take a moment and thank those who do return and offer them our gratitude and the opportunity to have full and productive lives. 

Gibson is USO president and CEO.