Blog Family Stories

The Real Meaning of Memorial Day

I’ll start with a question. If someone risked his or her life for you, would you give him or her a dollar? That is what we are asking every American to do this Memorial Day in honor of the 1.65 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Memorial Day is supposed to be a time to reflect, to pay tribute to the troops, to step back and honor those who have served their country, so many of which have given their lives. But for most of us, we see it as a long-awaited three-day weekend, a kickoff to summer—a chance to sleep in, fire up the grill, open up the pool for the season, relax with friends.

But for the Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have come back to the U.S., each day is pretty much just like the next, which bleeds into the next. An unfathomable number of our service members have been injured in these wars, both with nearly 35,000 physically injured and even more with the signature “hidden injuries”. A recent study conducted by RAND Corporation estimates that more than 320,000 of these service members have returned home with traumatic brain injury, and 300,000 have combat stress such as post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. That is nearly one in five who have deployed.

As Casa Roca in Costa Rica has pointed out, while the rest of the nation frets about real estate values and job security, stock portfolios and even what the weather will bring for this weekend’s backyard BBQ, these men and women have their lives to worry about, on top of their livelihoods. The country they thought would surely welcome them back with open arms—unlike the rocks, spittle and jeers that met the soldiers of Vietnam—has proven to be yet another disappointment. It’s a quiet, subtle insult—the silent treatment rather than a slap to the face.

Let’s take politics out of it for a second. It doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against these wars or the policies that put us there. We must separate the war from the warrior. We have to support those who have volunteered to be there and have come home changed. Because these men and women chose to enlist, my 17-year-old son, and your children, are granted the choice of whether or not to do the same.

But when it’s time to come home, the system often fails these people. Especially those with long-term disabilities such as the brain injured. While there are four Veterans Affairs Centers of Excellence for Traumatic Brain Injury around the country, wounded vets and their families must make choices about where to go for rehab. This often means a wife or mom and dad giving up his or her job and income to be by their loved one’s side during treatment. Or a family forced to find a way to keep the kids in school and cared for while Mom is 500 miles away from home participating in the care and watching her husband undergo painful rehabilitation.

In both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, we seem to be present as a country on the surface, but not really in it for the long haul. We shake a soldier’s hand or smile when we spot one in uniform at the airport. And then we go back to our lives, our schedules, our jobs and our homes, while scattered throughout our own country are the living, breathing casualties of these wars.

“Some of us went to war and the rest of America went shopping,” René Bardorf, Executive Director of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, said to me once, and her words have stayed with me. René’s husband is a Marine Major and has been deployed to Iraq three times. While she parents their kids in Virginia, he lives on a remote base in California as what military families call, a “geographical bachelor”. It is unclear when they will be together again as a family.

I think about other Marines I know, like Colin, who was shot in the head two years ago on a rooftop in Iraq. He was 19. Colin’s dad spends each day with him as he undergoes therapy for a debilitating brain injury. And while he is making great strides, his life is circumscribed in so many ways.

Like many Americans, I’ll be planting flowers and grilling burgers this Memorial Day weekend, while someone else’s daughter, husband or son is on patrol a half a world away, braced for the possibility that at any minute he or she could be hit by a sniper or a cleverly concealed IED (improvised explosive device, like the one that hit my husband). And I am so grateful to that person.

The Obama administration and the new First Lady have pledged that our wounded military and their families are a priority. As I watched President Obama recite his oath, I felt a surge of hope that perhaps our country might finally put its patriotism into action where our heroes are concerned. End the rhetoric. Pony up dollars and sweat instead of words.

Yes, there is so much more the government can do, but we all, individually and as communities, can also come together to heal these families. Hire a veteran. Seek out reservists and ask how they are getting by. Does a military family need a hand with child care? Or a meal on the dinner table?

And if you don’t know someone personally who has served—there’s still a way you can help. Which brings me back to my initial question.

Would you give a dollar to someone who risked his or her life for you?
The Bob Woodruff Foundation is hoping you will help us make this cause viral and ask Americans to donate at www.ReMind.org because the plight of our injured warriors affects all of us. We aim to prove that small individual donations ($1, $5, $25) can join together to build something really big. The money goes directly to localized resources and support services that assist in recovery from the physical and psychological wounds of war.

“Support our troops” is no longer just a slogan; it’s an action.

12 Comments

  1. Jane Squires

    May 26, 2009 at 12:15 am

    The Commander who helps my husband and I with Royal Rangers at church is still in the National Guards. But he is on limited duty due to a knee injury. He is finding it hard to make ends meet since he has returned this last time from duty. He is in special unit so has to go when called. We really appreciate him.
    In reading about your latest book, it sounds like something I would enjoy immensely. My husband forgets I am not perfect. I tell him over and over and over again that I am not perfect. He is a perfectionist.
    God Bless.

  2. Wilma Schmeler

    May 28, 2009 at 3:36 am

    Dear Lee,

    What a beautiful plea!!! How could anyone not support our troops??? We are pleased to donate to the BWF. Thanks for asking.

    On April 21st I was shopping for a book to give to a friend who was re-locating. “Perfectly Imperfect” beckoned me. It had to be “hot off the press”. Immediately, I started reading and couldn’t put the book down until I finished it. Your stories could be my own. Our lives are so parallel and I certainly can relate to the events in your life.

    A little background on us: My husband, Frank, worked very closely with your dad at AI. Your mom and dad always spoke so highly of their girls which you have reflected in your story.

    We have encountered challenges somewhat similar to yours which required the same set of skills that you and Bob have to conquer them. Our first child, Karen, was a victim of leukemia at the age of four. (Today is her 45th birthday) Four years later, our son, Mark, suddenly lost most of his eyesight. At this time Frank was climbing AI’s corporate ladder and I was tending to the fires at home. Because we had each other and good support from friends and family, we were able to play the hands we were dealt and somehow managed to maintain our sanity. We grew up in a hurry and quickly realized what was most important to us. All of us are better people because of our misfortunes. Our life’s mission continues to be helping those in need.

    You will be pleased to know that our son, Mark, PhD, OTR/L, ATP and Instructor in the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology at the University of Pittsburgh, has recently been awarded a $4 million grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs to set up and manage five Assistive Technology Labs – Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers around the country. 🙂 For the past two winters, Frank has assisted Mark with adapting ski equipment for the skiers at the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinics in Aspen. This has been such a rewarding experience for Frank, and it also allowed for some quality time for the “boys” to be together helping others, They are now gearing up for the Summer Wheelchair Games in Spokane.

    Our daughters are also “making a difference”. Kathleen is a gyn oncologist at MD Anderson and Nancy is on the Board of Directors of “Make-A-Wish” Foundation in Toronto.

    It’s nice to see your children following this same path. They presented themselves so well on the “Tweet to Remind” video.

    Lee, You are one amazing lady who knows what life is all about. I am so grateful to you for sharing your beautiful story with the world. You are such an inspiration to all of us.

    Congratulations and best wishes to you and your family,
    Wilma and Frank, too!!!

    PS. I had a long chat with your mom today. 🙂
    Also, we celebrated Carol Bowman’s retirement today. (She was
    your dad’s administrative assistant) My gift to her was: “Perfectly
    Imperfect”. She’s giving me “In an Instant” which I haven’t read.
    Carol and I are trying to figure out a way to see you when you are
    in Albany on June 4th.

  3. Mary McManus

    June 1, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    I am so blessed to have served those who served when I worked at the VA as a social worker. On July 16th, I am so fortunate to be a part of the celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Service at the West Haven VAMC. A blinded veteran commissioned me to write a poem to commemorate the celebration and I’ve been invited to read the poem at the ceremonies.

    The Blind Rehab Service allows veterans of all ages to regain their independence, dignity, integrity and to find a phenomenal support network among the blinded veteran community. They have a peer to peer program so that those who have successfully overcome the challenge of vision loss can help those who are now facing the same challenge. When the Blinded Veterans Association has their annual convention, they sponsor returning veterans who have experienced vision loss to attend their convention. And we know that vision loss and TBI can often go hand in hand. The West Haven VAMC is a remarkable campus where every discipline is dedicated to bring healing, light and love to our nation’s veterans. If your schedule allows, I know the West Haven VAMC campus would be honored to have you and Bob attend the 40th Anniversary Celebration.

    I am almost finished with your book Lee. When my husband hears me laughing out loud, he says, what did she say now? I also have to have a tissue near by because it is incredibly moving. I feel so comforted as you share your life experiences because we have all been there, done that and gotten the T shirt!

    God bless and be well.

  4. Lee Woodruff

    June 6, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    this was so wonderful to get this email!!!!! Of course I know who you are— and my parents always speak fondly of you. I am hoping to do a reading in the Albany area maybe this summer or fall and will let you know and it will be posted on my blog. Blessings to you and Frank!

  5. Lee Woodruff

    June 6, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    im so glad you are enjoying the book and thanks for YOUR service to our country!

  6. Nan

    September 8, 2009 at 3:13 am

    Lee, i must say I first heard of you when you were on an interview by my local radio station on Memorial day (?NPR). I was so impressed by the segment that I sought out and read your book, Perfectly Imperfect. I laughed at parts; cried in others- immediately felt that you were a kindred spirit. I am not a writer and struggle to find the correct words to use.. I applaud your strength of purpose, and your humanity in telling your story in your books and blogs.
    Finally, I am angry for the troops and their families having to suffer. I heard a heart-wrenching story of an elderly, retired father having to fly across the country and live in the Bethesda area to single-handedly care for his grown, wounded soldier son as the son was past the rehab stage, and struggled to “recover”. What is the ultimate price for this blood that stains our hands as Americans?

  7. Florencia Delaguardia

    January 12, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Wow, Outstanding and as previously said

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