General John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that “the 30th day of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion [the Civil War], and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet in the land. In this observance, no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.” The holiday would first become known as Decoration Day. Memorial Day became its official title in the 1880s. After World War I, Memorial Day was officially designated to honor Americans who died in all wars.
Wars are vicious. They scar a nation’s soul and the souls of those who fought in them. Like Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who coined the phrase, “War is hell,” those who have fought in war know it better than those who merely write the stories of war and those of us who read or view their analyses. To know war as a soldier is to know that it is horrific. Hell can be defined simply as the furthest away you can get from what is good and right, the furthest away you can get from God; war is hell because whether we succeed or fail in our military objective, everybody finally loses a lot, even those who live through it.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can derail the best efforts of veterans when they get home. Depression, substance abuse, and homelessness are plagues that afflict far too many men and women who chose to serve their country. Since 2006, there has been an 86% increase in the suicide rate among 18-to-34-year-old male veterans. Veterans are at 50% higher risk for suicide than their peers who did not serve in the military.
No one has any cogent theories that adequately explain the shocking, staggering numbers. But we do know that there is something desperately wrong with this picture. These statistics are a signal, a bright red warning flag.
It’s essential on this Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend that we remember the veterans who have died in all wars. They deserve our attention. They deserve to be acknowledged, as do their families.
Those veterans who committed suicide and their families: parents, siblings, partners, kids – all deserve recognition and rachmones [empathy]. On this Memorial Day weekend, filled with sales and races and beer, take a moment. Acknowledge the tremendous loss of life in the wake of war. Consider the pain and the loss. We remember them.