Memorial Day: A time to reflect on the sacrifices of our soldiers

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For some, Memorial Day is a time to dust off the grill, squeeze into last year’s bathing suit and enjoy a day away from work. For others, it’s about watching fireworks, eating hot dogs or playing a round of golf.

For all of us, however, it should be a day of remembrance.

It’s the single day we’re supposed to think about the men and women who gave their lives so can so freely enjoy the first holiday of the summer season. Since our military has spilled its blood on every day of the year, our reverence shouldn’t be determined by a single square on a calendar.

I am a military brat. My father was a retired U.S. Air Force navigator. My son is a former Air Force sergeant. My brother is a former Marine. And my nephew is a Navy combat hospital corpsman.

Heck, I was born on an Air Force base.

While I always will be mindful of the sacrifices of those who died while in service to our country, I also want to remember the soldiers who came home. For some, the battle continues.

There currently are more than 29,000 veterans living in Clay County, according to the county’s Veterans Service Department. And with active military working a couple miles away at Naval Air Station-Jacksonville, about one-in-six residents of the county have military backgrounds.

Veterans in Clay County generate a combined annual income of $150 million.

The county’s Veterans Service Department worked with nearly 5,000 veterans a year ago. They helped identify benefits, gave advice on claims, provided counseling and information on additional resources, referred citizens to county and state agencies for financial help, visited hospitals and nursing homes to help veterans with paperwork, assisted in obtaining VA Home Loan certificates, offered help with eligibility paperwork and worked as advocates throughout the claims process.

In short, they helped a lot. But it’s an unnerving challenge.

“Clay County’s needs reflect the nationwide need for available resources and financial assistance for veterans experiencing homelessness or mental health issues,” the county’s Veterans Service Department said. “Clay County is no different than communities across the country seeing an increase in homeless and mental health issues.”

Only 50 percent of returning veterans who face mental health issues will get treatment, according to RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research. And 20 percent of the soldiers returning from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria suffer depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

More troubling is the fact veterans are twice as likely to become homeless than non-military residents.

Mental health issues are a growing problem throughout our community, but especially for veterans. According to the VA, a veteran will commit suicide every 65 minutes.

We expected so much from out veterans when they stood a post to protect us. Now it’s our turn to protect them.

The first step is breaking the barriers that keep veterans from getting help, like feeling embarrassed or weak, long lines at VA clinics and the stigma of having mental health issues.

The next step is to increase the funding and awareness for veteran’s care. The best way to start that process is to stop using their needs as a political weapon. Nearly 70 percent of voters believe the government doesn’t do enough for our veterans.

And third, we need to increase awareness to available programs. There’s nothing more pointless than not being able to connect a veteran’s need to a solution.

Most of the time, that means starting with the Veterans Service Department.

According to the county office: “Many Veterans which includes active duty, retirees, reserves and family members may not be aware that the Clay County Board of County Commissioners has a Veterans Service Office on the second floor of the Clay County Administrative Building, located at 477 Houston St. in Green Cove Springs. The Veterans Service Officer is available to assist with meeting Veterans’ needs. The service officer can be reached at (904) 269-6326 to schedule an appointment.”

Another valuable resource is Mercy Support Services’ in-need help line at (904) 297-4052.

We’ve lost so many fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in our wars. In Clay County alone, we lost 16 during the Civil War, three in World War I, 13 in World War II, two in Korea, 21 in Vietnam and 12 in the Middle East in the fight against terrorism.

Let’s not lose any more right here in our own backyard. That would be a momentous way to honor the memories of our fallen soldiers.

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