Memorial Day is a federal holiday intended to pay respect to our country's fallen heroes. However, for many, Memorial Day is a personal experience that lasts longer than 24 hours and is much more than a BBQ and pool party.
My Memorial Day began at 9 pm ET on May 5th, 2006, with a satellite phone call from my husband, a Team Leader in the Army deployed to Hillah, Iraq. He said, "Hey babe, the worst happened today." I am an Army Veteran, so I knew exactly what that meant.
The Battalion was due home in less than a week. They had received their campaign medals, and unit and team photos were taken. Back home, family and friends were getting ready to celebrate their return to Fort Bragg with "welcome home banners."
My husband's replacement, Captain M (using initials for family privacy), arrived in the country and was briefed on the current efforts in and around Hillah. Captain M asked if he could borrow the Team to take him "out of the wire" and show him their area of operation. They mounted up in their HMMVVs, leaving my husband behind. For 30 minutes, he listened in horror over the radio as his Team Sergeant, Master Sergeant S, ran over an IED and called for medivacs. My husband and another officer took off to the blast site and saw his team sergeant being loaded into a Blackhawk helicopter. Master Sergeant S bled out on the way to the CASH (combat hospital). Two others died instantly. Captain M was flown to Germany expecting to survive but later succumbed to his injuries.
What struck me the most was that these mothers and wives I knew and grew close to would have a government official or Army Chaplain knock on their doors within the next 4-24 hours to be told their soldier had been killed. Moreso, these mothers and wives would receive Mother's Day Cards and flowers a few days later as they laid their sons and husbands to rest. I would meet them in Arlington at section 60, but only after I returned from Fort Bragg to help as my husband escorted their personal effects to Mortuary Affairs.
As the soldiers, loaded with all their gear, walked off the plane into the "Green Ramp," I desperately searched for my husband. They were all battle-worn, solemn, and still in shock. They weren't greeted with cheers or celebrations, only tears, hugs, and a sudden realization that, as Army Reservists, they would go home to familiar strangers and weren't particularly ready to pretend that the last few days had never happened. Yet, the bond of these brothers and sisters who had just spent twelve months in battle would not be broken.
My family and I would hike down from Fort Myer every Memorial Day in Section 60 in Arlington Cemetery and lay flowers on three friends laid to rest there. We could tell others had also visited by small personal items left on the headstones. As the years passed and the conflict continued overseas, Section 60 became the final resting place for over 900 servicemembers.
In total, we lost 7,057 U.S. military service members in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wish I could say that was the end of that sad statistic, but it's not. Over 30,000 active-duty personnel and veterans who served in the post 9/11 wars have since died by suicide and about 76 percent of U.S. veteran and active service survey respondents in a recent study report having experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their military service after 9/11.
While the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is responsible for providing healthcare and other services to veterans, many veterans have reported difficulties accessing the help they need. Veterans are sometimes turned away from VA hospitals or clinics because their needs aren't deemed urgent, whereas others struggle to obtain appointments for care due to a shortage of mental health professionals. Burdened by red tape, many veterans no longer have the fight to tackle the bureaucracy obstructing access to mental health care.
The VA has made efforts to address these issues by increasing funding for mental health services and hiring more mental health professionals. However, more must be done to ensure veterans have access to the care they need. This could include expanding the number of VA facilities and mental health professionals, conducting continuous market research surveys among veterans to gauge whether they can access the services they need and the effectiveness of those services, and increasing awareness about the importance of seeking treatment for mental health conditions. Equally as important is dismantling the stigma around mental health, particularly for men and minorities, who frequently encounter societal biases about seeking care.
The sacrifices made by these veterans should not go unrecognized, and we owe it to them to ensure they receive the care and support they need to live healthy and fulfilling lives. (If you're a veteran experiencing a mental health crisis or concerned about one, qualified responders at the Veterans Crisis Line can help. Click the link or dial 988 and press 1.)
May 25th is when I turn off the news and social media and tune out all the world's nonsense. I think of a young man or woman's sacrifice and those who grieved over their loss. I think of the Gold Star families and the service members who made it home but are still lost in that moment in battle. It's a day that I put aside all personal struggles, gains, and aspirations of the future and think of our fallen heroes that died in a battle far away from home to protect our nation's peace.