“We must stay at our post. We must keep faith with their sacrifice.”
— President Reagan, Mayport Naval Station, 1987
The tradition of memorializing the ultimate sacrifices of our service men and women is too often relegated to Memorial Day, when solemn observances compete for attention with mattress sales and barbecues. Remembering is too often sadly seen as the private ritual of a family in grief or the responsibility of others in the military. As one surviving sister noted, far too many knowingly choose “to enjoy the privileges granted by our service members and never acknowledge the sacrifice.”
Adequate acknowledgment of the sacrifices of men and women in uniform cannot be accomplished simply or fully by pausing in a “National Moment of Remembrance” on the last Monday in May. While essential and fitting, it is an insufficient testament that shirks our collective responsibility to those who remain behind and those who will follow. Because military deaths do not stop with a peace agreement or an executive order, and military grief does not resolve with a folded flag or a benefit check, our respectful engagement can take no holiday.
From 1775 to 2010, more than 538,000 men and women in uniform died from accidents, infections and illness or, equally as tragic, by suicide. Only last month, the Army alone reported 27 deaths as potentially by suicide — 11 for active-duty soldiers and 16 among reserve soldiers. Responding to these deaths is also our responsibility, for their consequences are broad and lasting. Researchers estimate that each military death significantly impacts an average of 10 people — mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, fiances, grandparents, cousins and other family and friends.
Among the handful of programs that give loved ones the support they need, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) stands out. Since its founding by Army widow Bonnie Carroll in 1994, the nonprofit, donor-funded organization has collaborated closely with the military service branches and more than 40,000 surviving family members, casualty assistance officers, chaplains, volunteers and mentors to offer compassionate, peer-based emotional support and care to anyone who is grieving the death of someone serving in the military, regardless of circumstance of death, relationship to the deceased or geography. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they have supported more than 27,000 bereaved military families. In 2012, they averaged 13 requests for help and support per day.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has characterized TAPS as the embodiment of “that bond of trust that we owe those who we ask to put themselves in harm’s way for their country.” This Memorial Day, he once again joined more than 2,200 people in Washington, who sought and offered healing at the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors. Volunteer members of the military joined TAPS staff and representatives from the USO, the National Military Family Association, the Association of the U.S. Army, Give an Hour, the Girl Scouts and dozens of other nonprofit groups to “remember the love, celebrate the life, share the journey” with surviving loves ones from across the country. “Rather than sadness and mourning rather than tears and pain, there [was] camaraderie and healing,” said a surviving mother.
As a former senator and decorated veteran, Bob Dole said this week that the American people have the “impulse to give.” And give we must, but not just on one day a year. We must give every day. We came together again this Memorial Day to honor the memory of those who died in service to this country, and we must stay together each day, all year long, to support their loved ones who will forever pay tribute to their fallen with their highest gift — their vigil of love.
We must do this not only as a genuine expression of our gratitude, but as an impulse that testifies to the core characteristic of generosity and the goodness of the American spirit, a spirit that is willing to sacrifice, in service, for others.