When Marine Cpl. Jamie R. Lowe was killed in Afghanistan on January 11, 2010, he was brought back home with a military escort and an American flag draped over his casket. He received a military funeral, with honor guard, was eligible for a plot in a national cemetery, and a Gold Star was given to his family -- all honors for the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country. He deserved our respect, our homage, and our profound gratitude. We planned for it -- and made sure he got it.
When Victoria Delong, who served in the U.S. Cultural Affairs Office in Port-au-Prince died in Haiti during its devastating earthquake in January, it was left up to her agency to decide whether and how to honor her. No uniform government policy or program ensured an escort or provided a flag. No government appropriation paid for a burial plot. No one was designated in advance to attend the funeral, thank the bereaved on the part of a grateful nation, or present a Gold Star. If you are a civil servant who works for our nation and you die in service to our country, you also deserve our respect, homage, and profound gratitude. But you may very well not get it.
Since 1992, according to U.S. Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, 2.965 federal civil servants gave their lives in the line of duty. Some have died in war zones, others have given their lives in what we thought were peaceful places -- Oklahoma City, Nairobi, Kenya, and New York City. Whether and how we honor those individuals who do not wear the military uniform is left to chance. Collectively, we don't honor them at all. They have no Memorial Day, which is set aside to honor those who died in uniform. They have no Veteran's Day, which is set aside to honor all those who have worn that uniform.
It might be tempting to explain away this stark contrast between how we honor civilians and those in uniform who die in service to the United States by saying that the latter sign up for a dangerous task for which they risk their lives. But a life lost in service to the nation is not less worthy a life because of this distinction. Nor should we be less grateful. As Director Berry has said, "Just as we owe our men and women who die in uniform more than we can ever repay, we owe these non-combatant workers a debt of honor as well, and I challenge anyone to say their lives are any less dear."
Yet we don't act as if this is true. All those who serve our nation take the same Oath of Office. Whether they die in a combat zone, on duty in a foreign embassy in a nation at peace, or an IRS building that is treated as a target by a government-hating citizen, they have died in service and honor to that oath. Simple justice demands we return the honor they have given.
When you go to your local post office to request a flag for the coffin of a current or former member of the military who has died, you get one. If you go your local post office for a civilian worker who has died in the line of duty, you get nothing. It's time for that to change.