For a lot of Americans, Oregonians included, Memorial Day means time off from work and the effective start of summer season, featuring enjoyable activities in communities large and small from the Rose Festival City Fair to the Prineville Memorial Day Parade.
Most of us in recent years have become separated from the reason for, and the human reality, behind the day.
Memorial Day, formed out of the lesser-known Decoration Day, originally in honor of Civil War veterans, was created in 1971, more recently than most Americans might suspect. It was launched while the Vietnam conflict raged and with the intent of honoring the U.S. military members who died in service.
As an Oregon website dedicated to the holiday noted, “Memorial Day is completely unique as a holiday, or any day we have really, in its particular focus: to get us to reflect on the nature of major sacrifice. What can we learn from and feel about those who died in war for our country and local communities? What does it mean to sacrifice for something bigger than oneself?”
Back in 1971, most Americans – and Oregonians – had strong personal connections with that idea. The draft was on, through the world wars, Korea and Vietnam, and those in uniform were drawn imperfectly but still broadly from the population. Many of us from those years knew directly or indirectly people who had died or been wounded in battle.
Military service has been undertaken by more specific and narrower segments of the population in the half-century since the draft ended in 1973. The sacrifices are no less real or great, but fewer of us are personally connected to them.
The Oregon connection is no less significant than any other state’s. The numbers can tell that much.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, at least 74 Oregonians died.
In Vietnam, an estimated 818 died, and about 57,000 people from Oregon served there.
In Korea, 283 deaths.
In World War II, 3,832 fatalities among Oregonians serving.
In World War I, 1,030 deaths.
In the Civil War, an estimated 48 died, bearing in mind Oregon had just become a state at that point and still had a tiny population.
One report on the subject concluded, “I think it’s impossible to get a precise count of how many people from Oregon have died fighting for their nation since the 1840s, but it appears to be more than 5,800, with the greatest number of losses in WWII.”
Today, we see the connections in the form of memories, some of them in physical form. Oregon has four national military cemeteries – in Portland, Roseburg, Warrenton and Eagle Point. There are also veterans memorials, probably more than in most states: 277 of them around Oregon, from a Grants Pass Civil War memorial for union troops to the Jeff Lucas Veterans Memorial Stadium – dedicated to a Navy Seal from Oregon who died in Afghanistan in 2005 – in Corbett.
When we hear about veterans in news articles or elsewhere, the context often concerns veterans services, especially health and social (including housing) care. And those are concerns which often have not been nearly well enough addressed.
But we should be talking about more than just statistics, cemeteries and services. This holiday is about people who died for their country, and we should have a more personal connection to that. But it also should be about those who served and returned home, dealing with conditions that range from PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, to the loss of limbs.
There’s an age factor here. Nearly all of the people I know personally who have served in uniform are in their retirement years, and the number has been falling. Growing numbers of us never knew a person who died in combat, or even served, although we walk past them as we duck some of those homeless veterans on the street.
The Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs has an advisory committee which has developed substantial regular reports on veterans concerns, mainly in these areas.
What the state – and federal agencies too, for that matter – have addressed far less is the subject of what’s called “mainstreaming,” bringing the world of the people who serve and served in the armed forces closer together with those who have relatively little direct contact with it.
Some form of institutionalized outreach, connecting veterans and our military to the broader public could help. Stories about those who gave their lives are available on line. But we need more than we have now.
We need to find a way to reconnect. We’ll be better off for it. And so will our veterans.
Randy Stapilus, who contributes columns for Oregon Capital Chronicle, has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976. Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact inf[email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.