"However hard the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind."
- General of the Army Douglas MacArthur
Before there was a Memorial Day there was a Decoration Day, when Americans in vast numbers "decorated" the graves of military veterans with flowers, flags and sometimes written testimonials and prayers. The practice traces to ancient times, though as a national day of observance in the United States it primarily dates to the post-Civil War era.
Interestingly, Charleston has a link to Memorial Day's early history. The following is from an entry in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
"The first widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war were held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled 'Martyrs of the Race Course.' Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 school children newly enrolled in freedmen's schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field."
(Note: The old Charleston Race Course is today's Hampton Park, adjacent to The Citadel.)
In 1967, Memorial Day became the official name of the holiday that in some parts of the country was still called Decoration Day. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that established the last Monday in May as Memorial Day, giving workers an additional three-day weekend. Memorial Day is a day to honor those who died for their country. Veterans Day (November 11th) honors all who served in the armed forces in times of war.
The current scandals concerning the Department of Veterans Affairs - months or even year-long delays to see a doctor, secret waiting lists, cooking the books to qualify for performance bonuses, etc. - have led to a great deal of soul-searching on this Memorial Day. Not a few veterans are said to have died while waiting for promised care. Did they die for their country? Or did they die because of their country's failure to give them promised care?
There are many hard-working, caring people at the VA. There are some, including those in senior management, who do not fall in that category. There are presumably a few who are dishonest and/or incompetent. Under current rules, they are nearly impossible to fire.
Last week, a bill was introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would give the VA secretary authority to rid the agency of those who are not doing the job they were hired to do. The bill, supported by neither VA Secretary Eric Shinseki or the White House, was shelved on procedural grounds by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Among his objections: Senators had not had time to read the bill and should not be asked to vote on something they had not read.
How many pages in the Rubio bill?
Two and a half.
How many pages in the Affordable Care Act?
How many senators read that?
The shame is that almost no one in "the world's most deliberative body" even sees the rank hypocrisy so prevalent in government today.
The problem at the VA is not new, nor is it partisan. Past administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have failed to deliver needed reforms even as significantly more money has been thrown at the VA's dysfunctional bureaucracy.
What distinguishes the Obama administration's fumbling of this issue is that the president himself was well aware of the deplorable nature of the situation he inherited a full six years ago. As a candidate for president in 2008, he even made use of it as a campaign issue, lambasting his Republican predecessor and promising to see that veterans promptly received the care to which they were entitled.
Like so many other Obama promises, this one too seems to have been flung down the White House memory hole.
Unfortunately for him, everything a president or someone running for president says these days is recorded, and when embarrassing stuff hits the fan, words that might have been spoken years ago often come back to haunt him.
That Little Girl who is always somewhere nearby when, in all his presumed majesty, a president passes by, is sure to look up and shout, "Look, Mommy! He's not wearing any clothes!"
This is the dilemma President Obama faces on this Memorial Day. Nearly 5½ years into a failed presidency, even his Mommy press, a press that has fawned over him from the beginning, is waking up to the reality staring it in the face, a reality that no longer can be ignored if its own credibility is to survive.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor and a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars.