How You Can Honor a Fallen Service Member This Memorial Day

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A man standing at Arlington National Cemetery.
(Photo courtesy of the Honor Project)

Ryan Manion is president of the Travis Manion Foundation, Gold Star sister of the late Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, and co-founder of the Honor Project.

We can rediscover the threads that unite us by honoring the fallen, who should never spend Memorial Day alone.

When you walk the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, it's hard not to be awed by both its beauty and the contradictions that swirl around it.

"[It] is more than the final resting place of heroes," President Barack Obama reminded us in 2015. "It is a reflection of America itself. It's a reflection of our history -- the wars we've waged for democracy, the peace we've laid to preserve it. It's a reflection of our diversity -- men and women of all backgrounds, all races and creeds and circumstances and faiths, willing to defend and die for the ideals that bind us as one nation. It's a reflection of our character, seen not only in those who are buried here, but also in the caretakers who watch over them and preserve this sacred place."

As a Gold Star sister whose brother is buried in Section 60 of the cemetery, I think about the "ideals that bind us as a nation," and how very fragile those bonds have felt this past year. But I can also think of no better opportunity than Memorial Day to strengthen them and come together as Americans. Countless of our fellow brothers and sisters have stepped forward and given the ultimate sacrifice for this nation -- a nation that, for all its flaws, they believed was worth fighting for.

My brother, Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, believed exactly that. He took his last breath knowing that his fellow Americans, and the ideals that unite us, were worthy of that sacrifice. Travis gave his life in Iraq's Anbar Province on April 29, 2007, when he was killed by an enemy sniper while pulling his wounded teammates to safety.

Each of us has the ability to be the "caretaker" that President Obama referenced. We are especially responsible for taking care of those laid to final rest -- and their families -- within our national cemeteries like Arlington. And we are responsible for continuing their mission to preserve and improve the country that they died defending. Those that we honor within those hallowed grounds have left us a gift when all too often we seem hopelessly divided: They are a source of inspiration and a reason to come together as Americans.

The gaps that divide us as citizens all but disappear when you join the military and endure difficulty and experience hardship together. This is especially true when you're engaged in combat as Travis was on his last day. Our service members place their lives in the hands of their teammates, without giving a single thought to the composition of their identity.

Likewise, we are all equal at Arlington National Cemetery. The families and friends who visit share an intense feeling of loss and pride. Arlington offers us an idea of what it feels like to instinctively focus on what we have in common. And in my case, it offered a unique connection to a complete stranger.

Last year, I met Emily Domenech, whose grandfather, a World War II, Korea and Vietnam veteran, is buried at Arlington. Last Memorial Day, during the height of the pandemic when cemetery visitation was restricted to immediate family members, she posted an offer on Twitter to visit gravesites for anyone who couldn't be there in person. The responses started pouring in. Her post went viral, and she spent six hours that day visiting as many fallen heroes as she could.

With so many families and friends still unable to visit Arlington due to the pandemic, she reached out to me, as the president of one of the largest national nonprofit organizations dedicated to serving veterans and families of the fallen, to help her make good on her offer this year.

On Memorial Day weekend, we will kick off #TheHonorProject, which mobilizes volunteers to visit fallen heroes at Arlington National Cemetery. We'll engage everyday Americans who want to honor the fallen at Arlington by supporting the families who can't be there in person. Because America's fallen heroes should never spend Memorial Day alone. The project's purpose is to carry on the legacy of service that our fallen military members lived with every day.

There is no greater honor than paying respect on behalf of a family member who can't physically be there. To deliver their love and sadness. To leave a flag that reminds us why our loved ones served and were called on to pay the ultimate sacrifice.

I often think back to the five words my brother Travis spoke before his second deployment to Iraq, from which he would not return. When asked why he would volunteer to go back, he simply stated, "If not me, then who ..." It was less a response to a simple question, and more the ethos that Travis -- and all service members -- live by every day of their lives.

This Memorial Day weekend, I will spend my day at Arlington in Section 60, surrounded by the best America has to give. Even during a time of continued isolation, strangers from all walks of life will connect with families of the fallen to learn their loved ones' stories and honor their selfless sacrifice.

-- 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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