Use actions to thank veterans

Not only is it important this Memorial Day to honor fallen veterans, we should offer more than words to those still living.

Last year was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, our country’s bloodiest conflict. Roughly 500,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died, says the U.S. Department of Defense.

Yet born of that grief was Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day. We set the day aside to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Families and volunteers honor the fallen by cleaning and decorating their graves, marking them with flags.

But even as we pause to remember, we must acknowledge that a single day of ceremony isn’t enough.

On Memorial Day and throughout the rest of the year, the dead — and the families they leave behind — deserve care. So do the living.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them,” said President John F. Kennedy.

According to an October 2015 Congressional Research Service report, fewer and fewer veterans are seeking public office following their military service. The high point was reached in the early 1970s when 73 percent of Congress had served in the military. When new members were sworn into office in 2014, Congress had its smallest proportion on record — 20 percent of the Senate, 18 percent of the House.

It’s a decreased percentage that is also duplicated within the ranks of Capitol Hill staff.

With less influence from the men and women who served, and increasing partisan gridlock, it’s little wonder the policies veterans have earned and depend on have become less of a priority.

The push to revamp Veterans Affairs, for instance, has become mired in politics as lawmakers, federal workers and the executive branch spar over cost, efficiency and labor rules. When introducing a bill to study the connection between veteran suicides and psychiatric medication, U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat, noted that “data suggests that every 65 minutes a veteran takes his or her own life.”

With national headlines pointing to suicides, sexual assault, lackluster medical and behavioral health care and homelessness, it is easy to view the problems as too big to be addressed. But there are local opportunities available for those who want to volunteer on behalf of veterans.

• Linn County Veterans Affairs — Helps veterans and their dependents understand and file for federal, state and county benefits. There is a relief program that can offer financial assistance to those in crisis. The office also maintains an on-site food pantry.

• VA Community Resource and Referral Center — Offers veterans enrolled in the VA Medical System access to resources for employment, vocational rehabilitation, compensated work therapy program, veteran’s justice outreach and housing. The organization also provides a computer lab and a clothing closet.

• Cedar Rapids Vet Center — Offers family, marital, alcohol, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder counseling. Survivors of military sexual assault can find help here, as can family members of active duty personnel who died while on duty.

• Veterans Justice Outreach Program — Collaborates with local justice system partners to identify veterans that enter the criminal justice system with a goal of facilitating treatment services rather than incarceration.

• Goodwill of the Heartland — “Operation Independence” provides veterans who are homeless or near homeless with employment and job training. It also connects the veterans to other community resources related to employment.

• Freedom Foundation — Outreach program that provides services like emergency transportation, motorized wheelchairs, walkers, clothing, lodging and food pantry deliveries to veterans and their families who are severely disabled.

Many more agencies and organizations that provide core services for veterans and their families are included in the community services portion of the Linn County website, Those who prefer single day volunteer options should consider reaching out to those who plan events like the Five Seasons Stand Down.

Remembering and honoring the fallen is important. It should remind us of our obligation to provide for the living.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 29, 2016. Photo credit: Jose Luis Gonzalez