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Gary A. Officer

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Memorial Day: A Celebration of our Heroes at Home

Posted: 05/30/11 12:55 PM ET

Memorial Day is often a time for us to pause and reflect on the incredible sacrifice made by our brave men and women who paid the ultimate price during the course of their service to our great country. Originally called Decoration Day, this holiday serves as a day of remembrance for those who have died for our nation. As we contemplate the courage of our fallen heroes, let us also pay homage to the allegiance of our enlisted men and women and our veteran community.

Regardless of political affiliation or ideological persuasion, as a nation we are unified by our support and admiration for the thousands of troops who place themselves in harm's way to defend our democracy -- our way of life. It is therefore a matter of great sadness that our admiration for their service is not appropriately reflected in the domestic treatment of our veterans upon their return to civilian life.

A month ago I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with a dear friend of mine, Connecticut State Representative Gail Lavielle, after reading her observations from a veterans' event she had attended in her district. With the economy of a few carefully chosen words, she provided a very personal and moving synopsis of the gathering. Rep. Lavielle wrote:

"I attended a Veterans ceremony this weekend, and though I can't stop thinking about it, I don't want to say much about it. About 20 people were there, and it was a very personal moment for them. No speeches, a couple of prayers and taps. So respectful, so discreet. Those who were there must travel a long, personal road now, all without the reassurance of ceremony. That is their private reality. I wish them peace."

I reflected long and hard on Rep. Lavielle's experience, and translated her words into my own work at Rebuilding Together. This year, we will complete the rehabilitation of our 1,000th house under our flagship program, Heroes at Home. The program, established by Rebuilding Together and Sears Holdings Corporation, was inspired by a very simple goal: We wanted to build, modify or completely rehabilitate the homes of as many recently injured veterans as our funding would allow. But beyond the transformative act of creating a housing product that seeks to return a semblance of dignity to the lives of our disabled veterans, something else comes to life for our team, our affiliates, and the thousands of volunteers, who invest their time in the act of giving back to this important segment of our community.

As much as we value and respect the sacrifice and heroism of our veterans, there is also much that we can learn from them. I have observed the quiet dignity with which they accept the good grace of others; their unwillingness to allow their injuries to inspire bitterness; and the warmth of their reluctance in accepting the gratitude of others for being the heroes that they are.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting two young injured veterans, ages 21 and 23. They were introduced to me by Frank Siller through his nonprofit organization, The Stephen Siller Foundation. This foundation was created to meet the housing needs of our injured veterans as a tribute to his late brother and New York City firefighter, Stephen Siller, who perished along with 342 fellow firefighters and paramedics during September 11.

These young veterans, both quadruple amputees, had traveled to Washington, D.C. with Siller to meet the actor, Gary Sinise, who has extended his support to their cause. I met these men because one of them required a new home located near Bethesda Naval Hospital. The injuries sustained by these young men were simply heartbreaking; their lives will certainly never be the same again. Yet, despite their injuries, each saw their disability as no more than a mere inconvenience. Each was sustained by the conviction that through determination they will overcome their debilitating injuries. Each believed that they will not be alone -- they will receive our help. Many are not so fortunate.

Our heroes at home need not suffer in silence. But many do. Those that suffer in silence are doing so because the support systems that they need to heal their physical and psychological wounds have proven woefully inadequate. This should not be.

As a nation, we must remember and pay homage to those that have paid the ultimate price on the battlefields, and we must make sure that our veterans do not suffer in silence. As a nation, in what remains our planet's wealthiest democracy, we must stand resolute against the alarming problem of homelessness, lack of resources, and substance abuse among our veterans. Finally, as a nation, we must acknowledge that as a community, we can do better in supporting our veterans on their return to civilian life. It's the least we can do. We can and must do better.