We need this long weekend, perhaps more than ever before. Whether student or teacher, parent or child, provider or patient, we have endured much over the past year. And Memorial Day weekend signals the beginning of the summer season.
Although Memorial Day weekend calls for us to rejoice, we must also remember its purpose: to honor those who died while serving in the U.S. military. It is because of their service that we can enjoy what the summer has to offer—in a year when we arguably need it the most.
Between 2006 and 2021, more than 18,000 service members died, a quarter (PDF) of them while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Over that period, nearly 3,000 were killed in action, almost 5,000 died in accidents, and 4,612 took their own lives. To date, 26 have died from COVID-19. All these men and women, regardless of when, where, or how they died, deserve our gratitude.
As codirectors of the newly established RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute, we also celebrate the service of those who previously served, America’s 19 million veterans. And we mourn the more than 12,000 of them lost to COVID-19, as well as those who died from other causes.
This Memorial Day we also urge our fellow Americans to remember those who have been fighting on the front lines of this public health crisis and to honor the over 3,600 health care workers who have died from COVID-19. Although the holiday is and should be dedicated to our fallen military personnel and veterans, this year, especially, we are reminded that service to the country comes in many forms. We remember those who worked tirelessly and in stressful conditions to treat the sick, grocery clerks who showed up to work each day to ensure that our families had food and necessities, and teachers who adapted to constantly changing conditions to educate our children. This pandemic has resulted in nearly 600,000 American casualties.
This Memorial Day we also urge our fellow Americans to remember those who have been fighting on the front lines of this public health crisis.
And let us not forget our “hidden heroes”—caregivers to those who were taken ill by COVID-19 or other illnesses and had to negotiate medical care for their loved ones during these challenging times, often barred from visiting them in hospital rooms, while adjusting to new work and family schedules. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that COVID-19 took a particular toll on caregivers’ mental health. Children have not been immune to stress and loss this year; over 40,000 children have lost a parent to COVID-19 and thousands more have suffered from losses of grandparents and other close family members.
As a society, we shy away from talking about death. It is painful to reflect on the losses we have endured and the gap that the passing of a loved one has created in our own lives. This year, so many of us are cautiously celebrating a return to daily life with the realization that life will never be the same. Monday, May 31, is Memorial Day, but service and sacrifice don’t take a holiday, especially in a pandemic year.
Rajeev Ramchand and Carrie M. Farmer are senior researchers and directors of the RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
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