Memorial Day and the Million Dollar Question: Do We Truly Understand the Price Paid for Our Freedom?

There aren’t many ways to acknowledge the sacrifice of war heroes that feel truly meaningful, simply because the magnitude of this sacrifice is baffling. Since the dawn of the American Revolutionary War, more than 1.1 million Americans have given their lives in service to our country. In doing so, they paid the ultimate price for our protection.

One way to honor this sacrifice of epic proportions, however, is to simply say “thank you” – and this is how Memorial Day came to be. Following in the tradition, today is an opportunity for us to remember the dead and the pledge they made to give up everything defending our nation. Yet there may be even more to the occasion than this.

Memorial Day through the Ages

To this day, although Waterloo, New York was officially declared its birthplace in 1966, the true origins of Memorial Day remain unknown. What we do know is that Memorial Day is a product of the Civil War, starting out as a day of remembrance to visit and decorate the graves of loved ones who fought and died in battle.

On May 5, 1868, almost 3 years after the last shot was fired, Memorial Day – or, as it was then known, Decoration Day – was officially proclaimed by John A. Logan. Logan, the third Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, is still regarded as the most important figure in recognizing Memorial Day as an official holiday. He designated May 30, 1 of the few days not observed as the anniversary of a battle, as the day to decorate the graves of fallen Union War soldiers.

In 1873, Decoration Day was first recognized as a holiday in New York. By 1890, all Northern states had followed suit. It wasn’t until after World War I, when the holiday evolved from honoring Civil War deaths to honoring deaths across all wars in American history, that this recognition dispersed over the South. Memorial Day as we know it, thanks to the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, is a federal holiday observed in almost every state on the last Monday of May each year.

From Decoration Day to 3-Day Weekend

Many people still observe Memorial Day as it was in the beginning, by visiting cemeteries and memorials to lay flowers and American flags – a timeless tradition that, in some cultures, dates back many thousands of years. In most areas, religious services and moments of silence are held in honor of this practice. Since 1915, inspired by Moina Michael’s famous World War I poem “We Shall Keep the Faith,” we have worn red poppies as a symbol of remembrance.

But to most, Memorial Day has also gradually come to mark the unofficial start of summer. It’s easy to forget what the day really signifies in our excitement for 3 days off work and making summer vacation plans. But Memorial Day means much more than a long weekend. Likewise, to yet more Americans, commemorating the sacrifices of our military servicemen means much more than honoring the dead.

While Memorial Day was established to remember those who died serving in the armed forces – and so should not be confused with Veterans Day – it is still just as important to remember the veterans who survived. For, although many of them never even saw battle, they were prepared to do whatever they could to fight. Whatever their experiences in the military, veterans are left with battles to face even today.

The Hidden Enemy

Fast forward to World War II, and the U.S. Military was making remarkable contributions to the war against Japan, Germany, and Italy through its naval branch. To protect the United States against potential aggression seen in Europe and China, the Navy came under pressure to expand and modernize its fleet. So, between 1938 and 1945, the Military spent $590 Million on naval construction and ended up with 70 percent of the world’s naval vessels.

Building new ships and renovating existing ones, of course, involved the use of stronger shipbuilding materials able to withstand the elements of war. Asbestos, a material used in construction for thousands of years, seemed a more than worthy candidate. The fact that this substance was fire and heat resistant, durable, lightweight, and cheap, seemingly made it perfect for reinforcing and insulating ship parts in bulk.

It was only a few years later when the dangers of asbestos became publicized. Even back in 1939, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy issued warnings of certain health risks believed to originate from asbestos exposure. However, the costs of shipbuilding were prioritized over human health, and recommendations to wear protective clothing were ignored.

Despite of knowing the dangers of asbestos, many companies continued to sell more and more asbestos to the U.S. Navy, knowingly exposing thousands of Americans to the deadly carcinogenic material.

Sadly, hundreds of thousands of sailors and people working in and around Navy ships and shipyards were exposed to billions of pounds of asbestos every year during World War II. Because of this, an astonishing number of veterans developed mesothelioma, a lethal cancer caused exclusively by asbestos, and other preventable asbestos-related diseases. In fact, a third of all people with mesothelioma – most of whom have no hope of survival – are veterans.

The Continued Suffering of Our Veterans

Mesothelioma has no cure. Every year, thousands of people die from the disease and around 3,200 new diagnoses are made. Consider, for a moment, that while over 30 percent of these are veterans, they already have many other post-war battles to contend with, including mental health and chronic injury.

The fact is, veterans have been let down every step of the way: First by asbestos product manufacturers, and later by systems designed to protect veterans and repay them for their service.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, instead of supporting veterans with the resources they need to live gainful lives, is unwilling provide more than the bare minimum. Asbestos corporations, instead of coming clean about their products’ risks, were unwilling to save thousands of lives in the first place. The FACT Act, to add insult to injury, is a proposed Congressional bill designed to support these corporations’ “innocence.” This, surely, is not the payback veterans should expect for the selfless work that protected our nation’s freedom.

Ultimately, Memorial Day is what you make of it. You may choose, quite rightly, to recognize all who served in the armed forces as you would on Veterans Day. After all, what’s 1 more day of the year to remember 22 million ex-servicemen? By showing our appreciation for their supreme sacrifices, we can at least do something to serve our veterans as they served us.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: October 26, 2021