10 Ways to Honor Fallen Veterans

memorial day

Memorial Day, celebrated every year on the last Monday in May, is dedicated to American veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country. According to Statista, well over one million service members have died during a named conflict, including an astounding 620,000 during the U.S. Civil War. As of this writing, the United States is still engaged in the War on Terror; our country has lost 109 uniformed service members in Operation Inherent Resolve, which is still ongoing[1].

The History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day dates back to 1864, when grieving women in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania placed flowers on the graves of the fallen after the Battle of Gettysburg. In the years following, flowers were laid on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers, and in 1866 in Waterloo, New York, the practice became an official community service.

Originally known as Decoration Day, the date was solidified in the public consciousness by General John Alexander Logan. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Order No. 11, the order that set aside May 30, 1868 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Though it was known as either Decoration Day or Memorial Day, the title of Memorial Day was determined for good by federal law in 1967. The official date – the last Monday in May – was established in 1971[2].

Today’s Military Service Members and Veterans

Who are the people who serve in our Armed Forces? Those who are serving today follow in the brave footsteps of our veterans by serving in one of the six official branches of the military: Air Force, Amy, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, or Space Force[3].

There are currently 2.1 million individuals serving in the United States military[4]. That 2021 number reported by USA Facts includes about 1.4 million in active service and the remainder in reserve services, such as the National Guard.

When it comes to veterans, many of them are young, having served in conflicts during the War on Terror, which began in 2001. But most are much older; in 2019, 11.7 million veterans were aged 65 or older. That’s 61% of all veterans in the United States[5].

Those veterans who come back alive from armed conflicts often have scars from their ordeal, inside and out. The incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among returning service members can’t truly be measured, but the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 30% of Vietnam veterans have dealt with PTSD, 12% of Gulf War veterans have, and up to 20% of those who served in Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom operations have PTSD[6].

How to Honor the Fallen

Memorial Day is about those who didn’t come home. Here are a few ideas for honoring them and the families they left behind.

1.       Participate in the National Moment of Remembrance. Established by Congress in 2000, this moment occurs at 3 P.M. in your local time[7]. Take one minute to pause whatever you are doing to honor those who gave the utmost sacrifice.

2.       Visit the local cemetery. Though some veteran cemeteries are open only to family members, others are open to the public. Take a quiet walk among the stones and pause to read the inscriptions. Take flowers to place on the graves.

3.       Participate in a walk for charity. Memorial Day is often filled with charitable events that honor the fallen by giving back to the living. Join a walk or run for charity on this important day. (Remember to wear your on-the-go medical alert watch or pendant when you go.)

4.       Learn about Gold Star families. According to the USO, a Gold Star Family is a title reserved for military families of service members who have died in the line of duty, “meant to honor the service member’s ultimate sacrifice while acknowledging their family’s loss, grief and continued healing.” Keep them in your thoughts on this special day.

5.       Watch the National Memorial Day Parade. You can honor the fallen right from your living room by watching this parade. The parade comes down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. and is televised for the nation to enjoy. Learn more about the parade at the American Veterans Center.

6.       Talk to the veterans in your life. Ask them questions about what Memorial Day means to them. You might hear loving stories of fallen comrades. These stories can also tell you a great deal about your family’s military history, including those who might have died while serving.

7.       Visit a war memorial. If you have a local war memorial, place flowers on it for Memorial Day. If you don’t have a memorial to visit in your area, you can do it virtually with some help from the USO. When visiting virtually, take the time to reflect on your freedom to do so today.

8.       Watch a movie about the military. This list of movies from We Are The Mighty offers a wide variety of options to choose from.

9.       Learn about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Located in Arlington National Cemetery, this memorial is possibly the best known of all war memorials in the nation. It is a beautiful white stone sarcophagus that honors the fallen soldiers the United States has been unable to identify.  The tomb was established in 1921. In 1926, soldiers began guarding the tomb to prevent visitors from climbing on it or otherwise damaging it. In 1937, the guards became a 24/7 presence. Watching the guards move around the tomb today can be a quite moving experience[8]. 

10.   Volunteer your time to a veteran’s organization. Though Memorial Day is about the fallen, providing assistance to their living comrades is a way to honor them. Find a local veteran’s organization and ask what they might need help with, then do your best to provide it.

How to Honor All Veterans

While Memorial Day is reserved for those who never came home from duty, it’s appropriate to honor those who are currently serving every day. You can best do this by allowing them to talk about the brave men and women they served with who gave that ultimate sacrifice. Don’t wish them a “Happy Memorial Day” as this is not a happy day for them – but do tell them that you would like to hear the stories of those they served alongside.

Remember that it has often been said that a person doesn’t die as long as their memory is alive – when their name is spoken, they are still here in spirit. Simply allowing a veteran to talk about their comrade brings the past to life in a way that allows us to honor it even more deeply.

We can also honor our veterans by taking care of them in every way possible. After all, many of them fought for the freedoms we enjoy today – and sometimes those battles left scars that we can’t see. If there is a veteran in your life who is dealing with depression, showing signs of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome, feeling anxiety or other difficult emotions, help them get the assistance they need. Immediate support is available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Don’t forget to support veterans physically as well. This can include offering to assist or pay for aging in place solutions that make their homes more accessible, especially if they have issues with mobility. It might include gifting them with medical alert technology that helps keep them safe; a device with fall detection is an even more thoughtful gift. If they need certain types of durable medical equipment, such as a walker or wheelchair, consider helping them work with their insurance company to get it. Ask what they might need help with, but also keep in mind that they might not tell you everything – that’s why it’s important to observe their situation and provide them with assistance, unprompted and unasked.

Finally, remember that you are free to do all of these things because someone gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect that freedom. So this Memorial Day, enjoy your time with family and friends, take the time to reflect, and remember those who sacrificed their lives because freedom isn’t free.

Alert1 remembers our fallen heroes.