In the aftermath of the Civil War, Memorial Day began as a means to reunite a divided nation. Americans came together, regardless of where they called home, to commemorate those who died in battle. Today marks the last Memorial Day this country will have a significant troop presence in Afghanistan, as the military is scheduled to leave by year's end. The nation has spent more than a decade entangled in a conflict of unexpected duration, magnitude and loss of life. This is another opportunity to reach across political divides to honor those who died to defend our democracy and protect our freedoms.
In a burst of patriotism, we will gather over picnics and in parades to honor and celebrate the sacrifices of our military servicemen and women. Today we are a country united in pride and gratitude, forever indebted to those who put their nation first, time and time again. We leave behind our ballots and beliefs to appreciate something that is greater than our ourselves — a nation that stands for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We pause to remember the fallen heroes, the many who have given their lives to protect those ideals.
The volatility of war has taken many of Florida's own. More than 2,200 American troops have died in the Afghan war alone. In February, Sgt. 1st Class Roberto C. Skelt of York died from wounds suffered when he was struck by enemy fire. He was 41.
We also stop to thank the service members who have safely returned home from combat, marked by physical and emotional scars.
This Memorial Day comes as the Department of Veterans Affairs is embroiled in a disgraceful scandal over waiting lists for care and other allegations of mismanagement. The transition from military to civilian life is often trying, and there is no reason for bureaucratic shortcomings to further complicate that process.
The VA backlog has shined light on the silent struggles of our veterans and forced Americans to think about how we treat those who have returned from combat. Our nation has a responsibility to do right by our veterans when they come home.
More than half of the 2.6 million Americans who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deal with physical or mental health problems arising from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of veterans, according to a poll by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. It can be easy for veterans to become discouraged and detached, to slip into the darkness of homelessness, addiction and violence. Many struggle to find a new sense of purpose after the camaraderie of a troop is gone.
The quality of veterans benefits demonstrates how compassionate we are as a people, and how determined we are to care for the men and women and who have protected us. This Memorial Day, we must renew our promise that military service is a sacrifice we will never forget.