In Our View: Honor the Fallen

But don’t forget to support veterans still living — and their families

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Let’s admit it: Most of us think of Memorial Day primarily as an opportunity for a three-day weekend, a chance to gather for barbecues and picnics and celebrate the start of summer.

That’s fine. But take a moment today to reflect on the sacrifice of both the heroes who fell fighting for the United States, and those who returned from battle.

Today’s ceremony presented by the Community Military Appreciation Committee provides just such an opportunity. It begins at 11 a.m. at the Clark County War Memorial on Fort Vancouver Way at the Vancouver Barracks.

It’s sobering to look at the list of 575 service members from this community who gave their lives in wars. Recently, three names were added to the list: Army Sgt. Earl Werner, 38, of Amboy, died Aug. 28, 2009, after insurgents attacked his vehicle in Iraq. Army Warrant Officer Jonah McClellan, 26, of Battle Ground, died Sept. 21, 2010, in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Marine Sgt. Jason Peto, 31, of Vancouver, died Dec. 7, 2010, as a result of combat injuries suffered in Afghanistan.

They are just three of some 6,000 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. These soldiers laid the groundwork for the Navy SEAL team that ultimately killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden four weeks ago. We can thank them all for closing a decade-long chapter of fear in the United States.

While we’re at it, let’s save a few prayers for the veterans alive but struggling. Technically, Memorial Day is the holiday for honoring fallen soldiers, and Veterans Day is the one for honoring those still living, but certainly twice a year isn’t too often to pay tribute to all of them.

Battle survivors need more help from us at home, something U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has emphasized as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “After a decade of continuous conflict, I am concerned that the nation is becoming desensitized to the physical and psychological wounds of war,” she said at a recent hearing. “While those watching on the nightly news may feel as though they have seen many such injuries, we can never forget how truly devastating some of these injuries are, and what an overwhelming impact they have on a service member or veteran’s life, as well as on their family.”

Some of the wounds don’t show. Veterans account for one of every five suicides in the nation. Earlier this month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered an overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health services. “The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough; no more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations,” the court said.

Murray cited 13 cases in which veterans committed suicide or died from drug overdoses while waiting for VA services.

“We do not need the courts to tell us that much more can and should be done to relieve the invisible wounds of war,” Murray said.

As U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, more soldiers will come home with wounds both visible and invisible. They will struggle to recover from the stress of multiple deployments. Many will have trouble reintegrating into their families and their communities. They will scramble to find work; U.S. Department of Labor data show the jobless rate among Iraq and Afghanistan vets was nearly 11 percent, higher than for other veterans and nonveterans alike.

These veterans need jobs. They need better mental health and other services from the VA.

We can and certainly should take today to honor the fallen. We can even enjoy our barbecues. But we should also rally to help the veterans still living.