At the VA, This Memorial Day Feels Different

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Homeless U.S. military veterans stand in line for services at a "Stand Down" event.
Homeless U.S. military veterans stand in line for free services at a "Stand Down" event hosted by the Department of Veterans Affairs on November 3, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Dr. Richard A. Stone is the acting under secretary for health for the Veterans Health Administration, overseeing the delivery of care to more than 9 million enrolled veterans at over 1,200 health care facilities. He is a retired Army major general and veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

Last year's Memorial Day was one of the most difficult in my lifetime. For the first time for as long as I can remember, I was unable to join my fellow veterans in person to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

COVID-19 has altered many parts of our lives, but enduring 2020 without gathering and connecting with fellow veterans was one of the most difficult for me.

Like most Americans, I've always seen Memorial Day as a time to pause and reflect. We so often run from task to task, from challenge to challenge, not taking time to think and acknowledge how we are feeling. Being in battle is an extreme example, but this pandemic also had those moments. At the time we're acting, moving, assessing and reacting, time blurs and it's hard to see anything but your goal: saving lives.

It is in the silence after that, when the battle is won and the dust is clearing, that you look around and see what it has cost. Memorial Day has been that moment for me for the past 40-plus years, when I look around at the achievements and blessings we all have and pause to remember those who gave everything they had to defend them. Like so many veterans, I remember vividly each service member I could not bring home safely to their families, and today I honor them and their survivors.

This year's Memorial Day offers us some ability to return to those gatherings, but it still won't be the same. Vaccinations have brought us a new sense of hope and stabilized cases across the nation, but while we are almost through this terrible period in our lives, this Memorial Day will be difficult for a broader reason: This year, we have even more fallen veterans to honor.

As we do each year, this weekend we will come together as communities to honor those who served and defended the nation in uniform and made the ultimate sacrifice. COVID-19 has taken the lives of too many loved ones, including many of our brothers and sisters in arms who survived their battles on foreign soil and then faced a very different enemy in the virus.

The dedicated employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs treated thousands of veterans for COVID-19 over the last year, many with very advanced respiratory compromise and the myriad difficulties that endured beyond their inpatient care. It has been a long journey for those veterans, as well as those who cared for them, sometimes for weeks and months on end in very challenging conditions. Through it all, our teams have demonstrated the expertise and compassion that makes the VA not only the largest integrated health care system in the nation but, time and again, among the most trusted.

As the head of the VA's health administration, I recently had the opportunity to visit a handful of our hospitals and, at each location, I was struck by the level of hope that is now resonating throughout the facilities. Our clinical staff is now well above 90% vaccinated, and it is close to the same among our inpatient residents, many of whom have not been able to receive visitors over the past 15 months.

There is a new energy to our hospitals as people start rescheduling routine appointments, and our teams are excited to see the veterans they have been able to connect with only virtually in person once again. Veterans and their families are coming to us to get vaccinated ahead of the summer break and are looking forward to traveling to see a family member or someone they served with but couldn't see last year.

Today, we honor those who cannot return to their families, but who will be remembered for their service and dedication within our halls and across the nation. Each of their stories is part of what makes the VA such an incredible place to receive and provide health care, and for me personally, a remarkable workforce to lead.

Our facilities are doing everything they can to make this Memorial Day a special event for our veteran patients, as we have done every year since our founding 75 years ago, in honor of their service and the memory of those they fought alongside. The daily hustle and bustle of our 175 hospitals will slow for a moment for these somber occasions, but they are meaningful -- and important -- reminders of why we do what we do on behalf of a grateful nation.

Just as importantly, we recognize that, while we may still be apart this year, we can come together in many different ways to honor and salute those who have defended our freedoms. This Memorial Day, we thank those who served, and we remember those who have been lost.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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