Memorial Day is so much more than a federal holiday. Here are 10 facts we all should know about Memorial Day and the Americans we honor who died while serving in our country's Armed Forces. And then, share your voice on 10 recently introduced bills about veterans pending before Congress.
10 Facts You Should Know this Memorial Day
1. Memorial Day was established after the Civil War. Three years after the Civil War (May 5, 1868), an organization of Union veterans established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. May 30 was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
2. Memorial Day was first observed at Arlington National Cemetery. However, several local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. The nearby graves of Union soldiers lay bare -- and the women placed some of their flowers on those graves as well.
3. After World War I, Memorial Day was expanded to honor all Americans who died in war. Then in 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Monday in May.
4. A National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day honors those who have died in service with a minute-long moment of silence. In December 2000, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law "The National Moment of Remembrance Act," PL 106-579.
5. On Memorial Day, the flag should be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon only, then raised briskly to the top of the staff until sunset, in honor of the nation's battle heroes. No regulations existed for flying the flag at half-staff and, as a result, there were many conflicting policies -- until March 1, 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower issued a proclamation on the proper times. (Learn more on flag etiquette.)
6. Bright red poppies were first sold in 1920 to help orphans and others struggling after the war. The Veterans of Foreign Wars adopted the poppy as its official memorial flower in 1922. And in 1924, a poppy factory was built in Pittsburgh, Pa., providing a reliable source of poppies and a practical means of assistance to veterans. (Learn about the VFW's Buddy Poppy Program.)
7. The Old Guard honors the fallen with a tradition known as "flags in." The Old Guard (3rd US Infantry designated as the Army's official ceremonial unit) places flags before the gravestones of service members buried at both Arlington National Cemetery and the US Soldier's and Airmen's Home National Cemetery just prior to Memorial Day weekend. Small American flags are placed one foot in from and centered before each grave marker: the toe of the combat boot placed against the center of a headstone, flag planted at the heel. In three hours, The Old Guard places flags in front of more than 260,000 gravestones and about 7,300 niches at the cemetery's columbarium, and they remain in the cemetery throughout the weekend, ensuring that a flag remains at each gravestone. (Watch video of the tradition. See photos of the Old Guard on Facebook.)8. More than one million Americans who died in our nation's conflicts going back to the Revolutionary War:
- American Revolution (1775-1783): 4,435
- War of 1812 (1812-1815): 2,260
- Mexican War (1846-1848): 13,283
- Civil War (1861-1865): 364,511 (Union and Confederate)
- Spanish-American War (1898-1902): 2,446
- World War I (1917-1918): 116,516
- World War II (1941-1945): 405,399
- Korean War (1950-1953): 36,574
- Vietnam War (1964-1975): 58,209
- Gulf War (1990-1991): 382
- Afghanistan War (2001-present): 2,320 (as of May 23, 2014)
- Iraq War (2003-2012): 4,486
9. There are more than 83,000 missing and unaccounted-for Americans who served in war (as of May 9, 2014). Last week, the Dept. of Defense identified the remains of Army Pfc. James R. Holmes, who will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In late November 1950, Pfc. Holmes, a member of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, was pushing north through North Korea to the Yalu River when his unit was attacked by enemy forces. He was declared missing on Dec. 1, 1950. (Learn about Pfc. Holmes's story. Learn about the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.)
10. Former Marine Cpl. Kyle Carpenter will be the 8th living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Cpl. Carpenter will receive the nation's highest award for valor for diving on top of an enemy grenade, saving the life of Lance Cpl. Nicholas Eufrazio during an insurgent attack in the Marjah district of Helmand province on Nov. 21, 2010. After enduring more than 30 surgeries, the 24-year-old is currently a full-time student at the University of South Carolina. (Learn about Cpl. Carpenter's story.)
10 Recently Introduced Veterans Bills in Congress
The Dept. of Veterans Affairs provides services for some 22 million American veterans, but recent preventable veteran deaths and benefit and construction delays has put the agency under intense scrutiny, according to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Weigh in on these bills related to veterans and POPVOX will deliver your message to your Members of Congress.
1. Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act (HR 4031): *Bipartisan* Would give the VA Secretary authority to remove employees of the Senior Executive Service, whose performance the Secretary believes warrants removal, from the government service completely or transfer them to a General Schedule position within the current civil service system, according to bill sponsors. (Passed by the House on May 21; now goes to the Senate for consideration.)
2. Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act (S 1982): *Bipartisan* "The most comprehensive piece of veterans' legislation to be offered in decades and addresses many of the challenges facing service members, veterans and their families," according to the bill sponsor. Includes restoration of full COLA for military retirees; authorizes VA to enter into 27 major medical facility leases in 18 states and PR; expands access to VA health care -- including complementary and alternative medicine -- and dental care, in a cost-effective and equitable way; in-state tuition assistance for post-9/11 veterans; and would end the benefits backlog. (Read full summary.)
3. Veterans Compensation COLA Act (S 2258): *Bipartisan* Would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to increase the rates of veterans' compensation to keep pace with a rise in the cost-of-living, prompted by an increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The legislation would make an increase available to veterans at the same level as the increase provided to recipients of Social Security benefits, according to bill sponsors. This year, it is projected that over 4.2 million veterans and survivors will receive compensation benefits.
4. National Guard Technician Equity Act (S 2312): Eliminates inequities in the treatment of National Guard technicians. Over 48,000 dual-status technicians serve in the National Guard.
5. Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act (S 2300): *Bipartisan*Requires the Secretary of Defense to conduct periodic mental health assessments for members of the Armed Forces and to submit reports with respect to mental health. Would require assessments for all servicemembers--Active, Reserve, and Guard.
6. Examination of Exposures to Environmental Hazards During Military Service and Health Care for Atsugi Naval Air Facility Veterans and their Families Act (HR 4517): Directs the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs to jointly establish an Advisory Board to provide expert advice on matters relating to exposure of current and former members of the Armed Forces and their dependents to environmental hazards at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan, during the period beginning in 1983 in which the air, water, or soil at such facility was contaminated due to an incinerator.
7. Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act (S 2243): Makes veterans of all eras eligible for the full range of caregiver support services; makes veterans in the VA caregiver program eligible to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their dependents in recognition of the fact that a spouse, who may have been unemployed or underemployed previously, may now be required to become the primary source of income for the family, according to bill sponsors.
8. 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act (S 2091): *Bipartisan* Would reduce the VA backlog by streamlining the disability claims filing process and holding the federal government more accountable for transferring information to the VA for quicker claims filing, according to bill sponsor.
9. Medical Evaluation Parity for Servicemembers (MEPS) Act (S 2231): *Bipartisan* Would institute mental health assessments for both incoming recruits and servicemembers separating from active duty. The entry screening would serve as a baseline for future mental health assessments throughout servicemembers' careers, while the exit screening would provide more accurate information on their mental health condition as they transition to civilian life, according to bill sponsor. (Introduced in the House as HR 4305.)
10. HConRes 98: A resolution urging the President to immediately request the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. Last week, Secretary Shinseki wrote an open letter to veterans: "Allegations of VA employees' misconduct have surfaced over the last several weeks, beginning with scheduling delays at the Phoenix VA Health Care System," he wrote. "I take any allegations about patient safety or employee misconduct very seriously." (Read the full letter.)
Please keep in mind that highlighting a bill doesn't imply a POPVOX endorsement in any way. Rather, we're simply trying to offer one more way to stay informed of an overwhelmingly complex legislative system. Learn more about POPVOX.
(Sources: Dept. of Veterans Affairs; VA Fact Sheet on Displaying the Flag at Half-staff; The Flower of Remembrance; PBS National Memorial Day Concert; Arlington National Cemetery; Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office; CRS Report on American War and Military Operations Casualties; DOD Casualty Report; Stars and Stripes)