Each year before Memorial Day, the soldiers of the Old Guard place thousands of flags on gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery. The annual "flags in" ceremony honors each headstone with an American flag, the same national symbol that covers a service member's casket at his or her funeral.
All who serve and die are honored in the same manner at Arlington, with eligibility based on military service, not the manner of death. No distinction is made about which gravesite gets a flag and which does not -- whether they died in combat, during a military training accident, from illness, in a terrorist attack, or by suicide -- each grave receives an American flag -- standing proud and true honoring the life and service of a fallen hero.
This weekend, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) held its 18th annual National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for all who are grieving the death of a member of the Armed Forces, regardless of the circumstances or the geography of the death. This is the true spirit of Memorial Day, to remember and honor the service and sacrifice of all who have died while serving, all who stepped forward during a time of conflict to go where their nation needed them, to selflessly serve in the cause of freedom.
When you look seriously at the issue of memorializing our fallen military members, you find many inconsistencies that inflict emotional pain on survivors. Take for example, the family of Marine Lance Corporal Darrell Schumann, who died in Iraq in 2005 while riding in a helicopter that crashed in a sandstorm. Lance Corporal Schumann's father, himself a veteran, has spent years questioning why a citizen board in Virginia refuses to include his son's name on a memorial wall on the state capitol grounds that honors the military dead. The board says that because Lance Corporal Schumann was not killed by a hostile act, his name can't be placed on the well, even though he died while deployed in a war zone.
Lance Corporal Schumann was on duty for America the day he died, and he was in Iraq because of the military mission. Yet his family is denied the simple honor of having his name etched on a wall alongside thousands of others, including victims of similar military aviation accidents from previous wars. In January, the board indicated it would consider adopting a more inclusive standard, but still had no plan to add non-hostile deaths in the Global War on Terror to the memorial. The Schumann family and others like them, continue to wait.
Then there's Gary Farwell, who tried to get a gold star license plate from the state of Idaho to recognize his son's sacrifice for his country. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Gary Marc Farwell died in 2010 in a military helicopter crash in Germany that killed two other soldiers. He had served four combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan flying Black Hawk helicopters with the U.S. military. Yet his application for a gold star license plate was rejected by the State of Idaho, because his son had not died in combat.
Are the deaths of military service members like Schumann and Farwell - who swore an oath to protect and defend this country, who were doing their duty at the time of their deaths - any less important or honorable? Do their families grieve any less than the families of those who die in combat? Is it right for society to honor people only for how their lives are taken - and not for how they are lived?
The Schumanns and the Farwell are not alone. While I was heartened to see the White House expand its policy in 2011 to send presidential condolence letters to the families of those who die by suicide while stationed in combat zones, the policy continues to exclude the two-thirds of families whose military loved ones die by suicide in other locations.
Army Lt. General Bill Troy was asked in 2010 about this as he honored a soldier who had died by suicide. He replied that when the military gives suicide victims a different kind of memorial service, "I think that you're adding to the stigmatization of a soldier who has a behavioral health problem. You don't mean to, but what you're doing is, you're making it look like it's his fault."
"We should be memorializing his service to the nation, his service in combat," General Troy said. "He's a volunteer, a member of a free nation who came and joined our ranks to defend this country and that's what we should be memorializing, not passing judgment on the manner of his death."
Who gets memorialized becomes even more complicated when you look at the numbers. From 2001 to 2011, about 16,700 American service members died worldwide. Though there were two wars under way, less than 30 percent of those military deaths, nearly 5,000 in total, were classified as due to hostile action or terrorist attack by the Department of Defense. That left more than 11,700 families grieving the deaths of their fallen service members in training accidents, suicides, homicides or illness, both in war zones and outside of them.
When tallying the number of Americans who have died at war, it's common for political leaders and others to combine hostile and non-hostile deaths that occur in combat zones. Nearly 4,500 Americans died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn in Iraq, and nearly 2,000 have died in Afghanistan. Nearly a thousand of the deaths in Iraq (934) and 420 of the deaths in Afghanistan have been classified as due to non-hostile causes by the Department of Defense. These are deaths that result from accidents, sudden illness, suicide, or homicide.
Today, all deaths in combat zones are memorialized with presidential condolence letters. But many of these fallen troops, like Schumann and Farwell, are denied memorialization by their communities or states because they were not "killed in action."
Both the Schumanns and Farwells have their loved ones memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery with grave markers and received presidential condolence letters. Yet these families are denied recognition by their communities and states because of how their loved ones died.
Many surviving families of fallen service members are hurt and confused when a government, community, organization or individual places greater value on one type of military death over another. These families wonder why service members who voluntarily joined the military to defend their country and put their lives on the line for it, are treated differently in death.
To define the value of a life by only the moment of its death -- robs the family and our nation -- of what each service member gave this country -- a life lived in service to country.
Thankfully, we are beginning to see some changes. Rural Purcellvilla, Va. held a candlelight vigil, attended by thousands of people, to honor Marine Captain Michael Quin as he journeyed to his final resting place. Captain Quin died in a helicopter training crash in Arizona earlier this year while preparing for deployment.
To see a community turn out to support the family of an American hero, who died not in Iraq or Afghanistan, but on duty in a training accident in the United States, shows that some communities are beginning to embrace a broader definition of memorializing their fallen.
Our nation honors each deceased military member with the same folded American flag, the same military headstone or marker and the same rendering of honors at burial. Their surviving families receive the same financial benefits whether the death occurs on American soil or in a foreign land or whether it is a suicide or an illness or an accident or a hostile act.
Memorialization should not be about where or how a death occurred. It should be about honoring the life offered in service to country.