Today is Memorial Day, when the nation honors the ultimate sacrifice of our military warriors. And, as it should be, this is the most solemn of our commemorations. The holiday started spontaneously during the 1860s as townsfolk decorated the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. Called Decoration Day originally, it began as a reconciliation that recognized the nation's war losses. Over time, it has evolved to include the more than 1.2 million service personnel killed in all U.S. wars since the American Revolution.
Our activities today should take on added solemnity because tens of thousands of our troops, all volunteers, remain in harm's way in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other regions. Before year's end, if President Barack Obama's plan holds, as many as 20,000 more troops will be sent to Afghanistan. Now is the time to honor the courageous service of our living warriors, especially when news about them — even their deaths and injuries in combat — is fading as daily lead stories in the media. After eight years of fighting in Afghanistan and six years in Iraq, too many Americans, seeing no endgame, have allowed the wars to blend into the background and focused on other issues closer to their own homes, such as the economic recession. For military families and their relatives, the strain and stress of war remains a constant companion.
Never before have so many troops been repeatedly deployed to war zones. These unprecedented deployments are taking a heavy toll in seen and unseen ways, as demonstrated recently when a U.S. soldier in Iraq killed five of his comrades. A leading study shows that one in four troops coming back from war has some stress-related mental health injury, and many of today's troops are home for just a few months before returning to combat over and over again. Each time a soldier is deployed, experts say, he or she is more likely to suffer a mental disability.
Now the recession adds yet another layer of stress for our troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. "You don't just deploy a soldier," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, during an interview with CNN. "You deploy an entire family. So, you got mothers, brothers, husbands, wives back home who are extremely concerned. They're dealing with a tough economy. All that goes into the stress of the deployed soldier, who's already got enough to worry about in combat."
Today, we honor those who paid the ultimate price while serving and protecting our country. We also should set aside time to honor the thousands who volunteered to safeguard our shores now, whose sacrifices have yet to be measured and whose families are still waiting for them to come home.