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Editorial: Memorial Day

Honor our protectors

With American soldiers still dying in Iraq, it shouldn't be hard to remember what Memorial Day is really about.

But some people will.

They will take this annual unofficial start of summer as the perfect time to frolic at the Jersey shore, enjoy a ball game, roast some hot dogs, down a few beers.

That's fine. Memorial Day is about that. But also so much more.

It is the day set aside for a grateful nation to remember the thousands of men and women who served in the U.S. military and sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for their country.

At 3 p.m. locally, a National Moment of Remembrance will be observed so Americans can pause to honor our soldiers and veterans.

We obviously need to take that time to reflect because a recent Gallup poll found that only 28 percent of Americans know the reason for Memorial Day. Many youngsters know it only as the day their local swimming pools open.

Memorial Day originated in 1868 as a day of remembrance for Union soldiers. Today, it honors all uniformed armed-forces personnel killed during war.

Symbolic gestures aren't the only way to honor military men and women. For example, people can sign up to participate in the Stand Up for Veterans campaign being led by the Disabled American Veterans to obtain better benefits.

The Washington-based organization wants to make veterans' programs a higher national priority. That means getting Congress to pass pending legislation that provides speedier access to medical care, improved education benefits for GIs, more job protection for when they are called to active duty, and better benefits for their survivors.

In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln said the country's obligation to a veteran is: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."

Shamefully, too often it's only after being confronted with embarrassing evidence of neglect - such as the scandalous conditions at the dilapidated Walter Reed military hospital - that Americans vow to treat soldiers better.

Today, there are nearly 24 million veterans, 1.3 million of them disabled. Those numbers will grow and the casualties mount as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on. More than 4,079 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq, and 30,000 seriously wounded.

Many of these men and women are returning home with emotional scars that receive poor treatment in a Veterans Affairs health-care system that seems ill-equipped to handle their needs.

A recent RAND study found that nearly half of the 300,000 U.S. soldiers who left Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression are not being treated. Memorial Day is the time to remember those soldiers and urge national leaders to do better.