Memorial Day, which originated during the Civil War to honor the Union and Confederate dead, has over the ages become an occasion to also celebrate current members of the armed forces and veterans.
Unfortunately, however, the observance, like Veterans Day in the fall, means more to many people for providing an extra day off. It's when they go to the Shore for the unofficial start of summer. Little time is spent thinking about the war dead, soldiers, or veterans, unless you have someone - a husband, father, sister, brother, son, or daughter - who fits one of those distinctions.
It's interesting that, after 12 years of perpetual war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have found myriad ways to pay superficial homage to their soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. They get to board airliners first, are provided with beaucoup shopping and other discounts, and are often serenaded by applause and shouts of "Thank you for your service" whenever they walk by in uniform. And many of these expressions of gratitude are heartfelt.
But just how much this country cares about its military men and women may be better measured by how well they are coping in the high-pressure environment of a military installation, or upon their return to civilian life after a final tour of duty in combat situations.
Here's a statistic that suggests veterans aren't getting all the attention they deserve: Every day in America, about 22 veterans kill themselves. That's a 20 percent increase in veteran suicides since 2007. Even in the context of an overall increase in suicides in this country, the number for veterans is disturbing. It indicates not only a lack of effective mental-health programs for veterans, but also insufficient emphasis on the problem by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA also needs to improve its efficiency in handling disability claims. Thousands of veterans have been waiting for benefits for more than a year.
Unemployment among veterans needs more attention, too. Federal, state, and local tax credits are available to companies that hire veterans, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce members have pledged to hire more than 200,000 veterans over the next five years. But the pace needs to pick up. The unemployment rate among veterans still hovers about 2 percentage points above the 7.5 percent national rate. Too many vets are running out of money before they find a job. Too many are living on the streets, some contemplating suicide because they have been unable to make the transition back to civilian life.
"When our perils are past, shall our gratitude sleep?" That question, first asked by British statesman George Canning more than 200 years ago, is often repeated on Memorial Day and other military observances.