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More than a Long Weekend

by Kathy Roth-Douquet

Reprinted with permission from USA Today (May 21, 2009)
Media contact: Rosemary Freitas Williams 410-562-5285

More than a Long Weekend

Memory is the key to the character, not only of a person, but of a country.

Illustration with Sam Ward/USA Today

Illustration by Sam Ward/USA Today

So essential is memory that Elie Wiesel, the humanitarian witness of the Holocaust, expresses concern about the recent development of a therapeutic drug that erases memory. As Wiesel points out, memory, even of uncomfortable or painful events, is necessary for both historic and moral understanding.

Our forbears seem to have agreed when they created Memorial Day. The order was issued on May 5, 1868, in the aftermath of the Civil War. It urged that we “let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

So it is surprising that, as a country, we still have to work hard to remind ourselves that Memorial Day is meant to be more than the three-day-weekend that heralds the start of summer. This year is the seventh Memorial Day in a row that finds American men and women in uniform in ongoing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan that are sure to bring more American losses.

Don’t forget military families Today in America— when the military makes up just 1% of the population — it is not only our distant dead whom we need to remember, but also the tens of thousands of sons and daughters, husbands and wives in the military whose families pray each day for their safe return. In a recent survey of military family members, fielded by a range of organizations serving and representing military families, an astonishing 94% of respondents reported feeling disconnected from the rest of America.

“I do not feel the larger society understands or appreciates the sacrifices made by military families,” agreed the majority of active duty and reserve families, officers and enlisted, families of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in response to a survey question.

Perhaps Memorial Day can be a day to remember those families, too.

What would military families like us to remember, or to learn? One military wife, anonymously answering an “open response” section of the survey, said she’d like folks to know that military children have an operational tempo — that is, a cyclic rate of deployment, homecoming and redeployment — as great as their parents, and are being as affected by the war as the soldier.

Another spouse raises more practical needs in an open-ended response, pointing out that she needs “someone to mow the lawn, look after the kids, take out the trash, that sort of thing.”

But they’d also like us to know, says Army spouse Laura Dempsey, whose husband is with the 10th Mountain Division along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, that “despite all of this, we are proud of our service. We love the Army culture and feel that we are stronger, our marriage is stronger, and our children are getting rewards from this life as well.”

Casey Spurr’s Navy husband has had three deployments in the past five years, missing half his 4-year-old son’s life. But she also says, despite the sacrifice, it’s the “honor of a lifetime” to be part of a military family.

What animates these families is what John McCain called “a cause greater than self-interest.” Military families want to be remembered, not just because they want sympathy, or help. But because they believe there is a benefit that comes from being part of a larger endeavor, and they don’t want the larger society to miss out on that, either.

What you can do First lady Michelle Obama has shifted many people’s attention to military families, by giving the issue her imprimatur, visiting Fort Bragg in North Carolina and honoring the military child of the year at the White House. That is welcome attention.

There are many creative ways for individuals and organizations to get involved in helping military families. Sesame Street put together a great video for kids about deployment. This helps normalize their experience while letting them know in a safe, friendly way that it’s OK to feel the way they do. The Congressional Women’s Caucus is urging representatives to meet with military families in their districts, in hopes of gaining a better understanding of what these folks face. Kids in Distressed Situations, listed by Forbes among the 200 largest U.S. charities, announced a commitment to provide free children’s books to the woefully understocked base libraries and schools around the USA.

Let Memorial Day be a day to remember with action. Take the traditional route of decorating a veterans cemetery or cheering at a parade. Or you can take a non-traditional path. Find a family with a deployed mom or dad and do what Patricia Sinay in Encinitas, Calif., plans to do — drop off a packet of Oreo cookies and a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Go online and give to a military-focused charity, such as DonorsChoose.org, the one Stephen Colbert is showcasing on his Comedy Central website. Or simply tell your children that brave men and women and their families are serving around the world for us — and that you appreciate them.

Let’s make Memorial Day be for our honored dead, for our proud and struggling military families, and for us all.

Kathy Roth-Douquet is a founder of Blue Star Families and is a Marine Corps wife living on Parris Island, S.C.


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