"For 99% of Americans, Memorial Day is a chance to circle a barbeque grill; for us, it's about gathering together in a cemetery." Probably nothing captures the enormous gulf between how veterans and civilians treat Monday's national holiday than that quick but pointed reminder I heard Wednesday from Paul Rieckhoff. Paul is the charismatic founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and author of the acclaimed book Chasing Ghosts, about his tour of duty in Iraq. As most of us celebrate the "official" start of summer this weekend, hopefully the words of Paul Rieckhoff, or the roar of Rolling Thunder, or the quiet comfort that the USO brings every day to service families, will break through our routine.
My generation was the first beneficiary of our modern volunteer armed service, in the sense that no longer would all able-bodied men be expected to spend time in uniform. The ability to outsource our service keeps us personally untouched by combat, but raises societal issues and comes with countervailing personal trade-offs. Sebastian Junger's new book War and his companion film Restrepo vividly detail the depth of camaraderie that come from absolute commitment to the safety of your fellow squad members. Those of us around our family barbeques can instinctively appreciate how common mortal danger binds brothers and sisters-in-arms; our challenge now is to find better ways to hold our veterans close to the whole community and to demonstrate our appreciation for what they've given for our freedoms.
IAVA joins many other governmental and non-profit organizations in working on the full range of issues facing today's returning warriors. At a time when our economy struggles to produce new jobs, an estimated 30% of veterans of our current conflicts are out of work. The Veterans Administration is more invigorated under Secretary Shinseki than it has been in many decades - but a huge number of vets, particularly the young ones, will never willingly walk into a VA hospital or ask for government help, despite what may be significant need.
Many organizations are hard at work to bridge these gaps. The USO assists service members and their families around the world. IAVA has created an incredible online community of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, and advocates for federal action on jobs, health, education and other pressing vet issues. There are various levels of government that deliver services as well as recreational opportunities to active duty warriors and their families, and veterans. But more is needed, from our society collectively and each of us individually.
Leon Cooper will be on CNN Monday morning. Leon is 90, a WWII vet living in Los Angeles and working with a consistency and energy of someone in his 20s. That's how old he was at Tarawa, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. Leon returned to that atoll when he learned that the beach that held the bones of his fallen comrades was now a garbage dump for islanders without arable land for alternatives. His final campaign is captured in the film Return to Tarawa, which you can watch here. Thanks to Leon's indomitability, the power of the film, and the tools of SnagFilms, Congress last year directed the Department of Defense to identify the remains on Red Beach and bring them home. In two months, the DOD teams will wing west to begin a task of memory and responsibility we have deferred for nearly 7 decades.
Kyle Maynard spends significant time working with wounded warriors. An exceptional athlete honored with an ESPY and a shelf of other awards, best-selling author and motivational speaker, Kyle was born without complete limbs. His motto, "No Excuses", completely encapsulates how he lives his life. (A new film about Kyle will air on ESPN in November.) Not long ago, I spent an afternoon at Ft. Myer, Virginia, with Kyle and a group of Iraq and Afghanistan vets with serious physical injuries resulting from their service. We gathered around an exercise mat, and Kyle put the six men and one woman through a daunting workout - but from my fly-on-the-wall vantage point, the greatest outcome of the day came from the conversation among the participants. The service members joining Kyle knew he only had a civilian's perspective ... but they also knew that his physical challenges had been life-long. They had in common much more than what they lacked; each was working every minute to turn loss into motivation, not cause for withdrawal.
We too need to make an effort, each in our own way. Memorial Day provides many such opportunities. At the very least, it provides the chance for reflection and appreciation. Our founder, Ted Leonsis, coined the term "filmanthropy" to combine the communication power of film with the interactivity of the web, and allow an engaged audience new ways to start a conversation or take an action. We've pulled 11 films together from different conflicts and perspectives for Memorial Day - you can watch them from the widget below, or here . Enjoy them alone or with others. And make your Memorial Day into something to remember.Watch more free documentaries