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Memorial Day 2018 – Bearing Witness: When Wars Are Long Over

By Jim McDonough, Managing Director, IVMF

A different approach for this post, given that we’re about to honor the nation’s war dead and their families later this month.

To begin, I’m struck this Memorial Day by just how much I’m dreaming of my life spent in service to the nation. Sometimes at night I feel like that veteran who ….dreams of the fight, fast asleep at the traffic light…., as Jackson Browne penned for his 1976 song, The Pretender.

Strangely weird, I know, probably something associated with getting older.

As part of my preparation for this month’s Memorial Day observance, I’m re-reading Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, a collection of poems drawn from his experiences and observations of the Civil War. I first came across them while serving as New York State’s Director of Veterans Services, where someone suggested I read them to better understand the Civil War soldier experience.

I was also drawn to read them by my own father-in-law, whose relative fought (and was wounded) at the 1864 Civil War Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia. Nearby, Walt Whitman visited his wounded brother, George,a Union soldier, who was wounded in the 1862 Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg (about 80 miles separate these two Virginia battlefields).

From Fredericksburg, Whitman was asked to transport wounded soldiers to Washington, DC, and he stayed with them throughout the remainder of the Civil War. By the time the War ended, he had captured their stories through his interactions and tours amongst the wounded. Drum-Taps, is one of those bodies of work that bore “….witness to the violence of war with a sense of intimacy and fear.”

Today, in this time of prolonged conflict, it’s increasingly clear that our nation’s capacity to bear witness to war’s harsh reality is diminishing. The ranks of our veterans are thinning, and little is actually known about them.  The steady flow of volunteers ebbing to a trickle as connection to those who have borne the battle retreats from much of modern society’s collective consciousness. Just this month it was reported that out of the 33.4 million Americans between the age of 17 and 24 (the Army’s prime demographic for enlisting and commissioning), only 136,000 are eligible and interested in serving. It seems that the Army I served in is becoming America’s last choice in a long line of alternatives.

Sad. In the chatter about our youth, who may or may not voluntarily serve in the nation’s armed forces, the recurring theme is that service, and frankly America’s wars, are indeed becoming largely a family affair.  If you are not connected to it, how can you know this?  In my house, we know. Our three sons were born near Army installations in far off places and our youngest rises early and studies late at college while he works to earn a commission in ROTC.

He wants to lead a tribe that like him, are all volunteers.

As we collectively struggle with how to bridge this knowledge & cultural divide, one way for us all to become more aware is if we trace the mission and the urgency back to the source, our communities, where we all hail from and where we return, sometimes banged up and worse for wear. Our communities are the root—the Alpha and the Omega – at the beginning and the end, where we are born and where we ultimately, rest. It is in these communities that we find both the source of our inspiration and the source of the growing divide, in part due to the more transient and technology-driven nature of our society. Community is the origin, and it can, and should also be, the solution.

Increasingly, in smart communities around the country we are finding that it is. As many of our followers are aware, our communities are playing an increasingly important role in serving their fellow citizens. One such community is Washington, DC, where this Memorial Day we will launch our 15thAmericaServes network with our colleague, Ann Mazur, Chief Executive Officer of EveryMind, who, together with  her wonderfully talented team of professionals, are working hard to address the needs of the region’s military connected families within their ServingTogether initiative.

In partnership with AmericaServes and the 721 service providers nationwide that comprise these interconnected networks of coordinated care, resources and services, Ann’s team will join the ranks of the very best and most innovative communities in the nation delivering 21stcentury human services and care to their military connected families calling the National Capital Region home.

Like Walt Whitman’s family, Ann’s own family draws upon meaningful military service too as its inspiration to continue serving, as she recently wrote:

I have a duty – much like the one my father, Bernard Lewis, had – to serve people best. In today’s rough-and-tumble nonprofit sector, that means connecting our organization to the impactful work of others, in new ways that help elevate our efforts beyond what we are capable of doing ourselves, and in this case, to accelerate our organizational ability to serve people best, in a 21stcentury way, in the ServingTogether way. About a year ago we first learned about the work of Syracuse University and its Institute for Veterans and Military Families, who in the past five years have built a demonstrated track record of improving upon levels of service and care to thousands of veterans and their families. Today, they are our partner in the same.

I like to think that our nation’s communities are themselves the single most important outposts of freedom, where we still find a willingness by some to support and defend the Constitution, the same Constitution that saw George Whitman and Bernard Lewis serve, the same that supported my service, and that which will support our son’s.

In Whitman’s Veteran’s Vision, part of his Drum-Tapscollection, he writes from the perspective of a man now living in his community, home from war:

“While my wife at my side lies slumbering, and the wars are over long, and my head on the pillow rests at home, and the mystic midnight passes, and through the stillness, through the dark, I hear, just hear, the breath of my infant, there in the room, as I wake from sleep, this vision presses upon me: the engagement opens there and then, in my busy brain unreal; the skirmishers begin…….”

My busy brain reflects upon the meaning of service and its sacrifices as we honor our nation’s fallen soldiers this month. I wonder at times how those of us fortunate enough to rest at home, deep inside the protective veneer of our communities, to hear our childrenin the midnight hour, remember those who cannot.

It is in this sense of community, where I live, work and play that I find the greatest potential to positively support those who serve and their families. It is here, where individuals like Ann, the daughter of a World War II sailor, find strength and purpose to continue serving, together.

America is indeed an incredible nation comprised of wonderful communities and individuals capable of doing so much for so many. For those who served, a collective responsibility to support them each best, with the whole of the nation centered on the role of its communities, portends the greatest means by which we ensure their success, when the wars are over long.

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