Every evening at 8 o’clock, police halt the traffic at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, so buglers can honor the memory of those soldiers who headed out for the front and never returned. With the exception of the German occupation during World War II, the Last Post ceremony has taken place uninterrupted since 1928.
While attending this service on April 15, 2012, I felt I was standing on a city street that has been transformed into sacred space. The red poppies and personalized messages placed around the memorial paid homage to the 54,389 names listed on the memorial. Each name represents a soldier from United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who fell in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and remain missing. The memorials and cemeteries scattered throughout Flanders Fields the story of a war that destroyed entire cities and villages, leaving tens of thousands of citizens refugees. By the end of the Great War, a million soldiers fighting in Flanders Fields were killed, wounded or missing in action.
These images and statistics remained on my mind during this year’s Memorial Day celebrations. As we remember those heroes who died in the line of duty, how will we care for those veterans for whom the battle lingers on after they return home?
Here in the United States, the number of disability cases filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) jumped 48 percent over the past four years to 1.3 million in 2011. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001--a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans--was 12.1 percent in 2011. Also, 67,000 veterans spent one night homeless, living in emergency shelters, transitional housing units or on the streets in the last year. In addition, about 1.5 million other veterans are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
During this presidential election cycle, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will play the veteran card as needed in an effort to appease voters alarmed by these bleak statistics. But for those who are tired of unfulfilled campaign promises, here are a few suggested grassroots endeavors where one can make a difference today.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation and the Gary Sinise Foundation joined forces to provide a Smart Home for all severely wounded military including quadruple and triple amputees. The homes feature energy efficiency, ease of accessibility and automation to ultimately provide the veteran with the capability to live more independent lives.
The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans U.S. military veterans and active duty personnel a chance to flex their creative muscles. This writing contest hosted by The Iowa Review is made possible by a gift from the family of Jeff Sharlet (1942-69), a Vietnam veteran and antiwar writer and activist. Submissions must be received by June 15, 2012.
The Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets seeks to help returning veterans achieve their goal of being fit and competitive while providing the camaraderie that helps veterans heal both mentally and physically. To date, this rehabilitation program founded in 2004 by Achilles International has sponsored and trained more than 1,000 vets from Afghanistan and Iraq with combat-related injuries so they can participate in national racing events.
These charities remind me that perhaps the best way we can pay our respects to these everyday heroes is for us to put the words of St. Francis into action: Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.