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Honoring Lost Warriors

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On Memorial Day, there’s more than one way to pay tribute to the soldiers who didn’t come home.

Memorial Day is a particularly American holiday tradition, one that embodies what’s been described as our nation’s “secular civil religion.” That is, while Americans don’t all share the same religious beliefs, historically we have shared a sacred respect for citizens who devote their lives to the service of the national good. Those who sacrifice their lives in defense of the nation are traditionally honored as the noblest among us.

The origins of Memorial Day date back to the aftermath of the Civil War, when veterans’ organizations instituted the practice of adorning the gravestones of soldiers killed in action with flowers on a regularly observed “Decoration Day.” Over the years, as Northern and Southern veteran groups merged their memorial traditions into a single holiday, that practice evolved. The official Memorial Day date was set as the last Monday in May, a time when flowers were sure to be in bloom—and, eventually, flags became as common a decoration as flowers.

Decorating military gravesites remains an integral part of the way we honor lost soldiers today. As author Susan Soper noted in a blog at Legacy.com after seeing survivors visit their loved ones at the cemetery: “It is always moving to see them salute, place flowers, tidy the sites, pray, smooth headstones with their hands and sometimes even speak to the departed, reliving memories, regretting that there weren’t more.”

Tending to gravestones, though, isn’t the only way to pay tribute to our honored dead. Veterans and their families have suggested a variety of memorial practices that can show our appreciation and respect.

Spend time with those who’ve lost loved ones or fellow soldiers to war. Whether that means gathering with your own family members or volunteering at a Veterans Affairs facility, take the opportunity to keep company with those who have precious memories they’re eager to preserve. Listen to their stories; express your appreciation. Find out about volunteer opportunities with the VA at www.volunteer.va.gov.

Support a charity that supports grieving survivors. Based not far from Arlington National Cemetery, the historic military cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), provides peer support, grief resources, and other compassionate care programs to those grieving the death of a loved one serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. There are various ways to help: by volunteering as a counselor or peer mentor; by organizing a fundraising event; or simply by giving a donation. Learn more at taps.org.

Support quality-of-life programs for active duty troops. U.S. troops currently deployed in Afghanistan and elsewhere can use all the love they can get. One group providing it is Books For Soldiers, a small nonprofit based out of North Carolina that makes it possible for people to donate books and other care-package items to troops serving overseas. Join the volunteer effort—as an individual or on behalf of a company—by signing up at booksforsoldiers.com.

Read the war stories of those who’ve told them powerfully. Modern-day memoirs like Benjamin Busch’s “Dust to Dust,” as well as true-to-life fiction by military veterans and their spouses like Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” and Siobhan Fallen’s “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” aren’t just a profound, moving way of sharing the experiences of Americans at war. They’re also part of a long memorial tradition of soldiers through the ages who’ve spun their stories with harsh beauty, from the World War I soldier poets all the way back to Julius Caesar’s memoirs of the Gallic Wars.