MARCO ISLAND — For many of us, the Memorial Day holiday means picnics, a day on the beach and shopping specials. For the men and women who have served, Memorial Day is a sacred day to honor the ones who never made it home. Whether it’s World War II, Vietnam or the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marco Island veterans say the dedication to duty, honor and country has never been stronger, and the recognition of veterans by civilians has changed over the years, as well.
“People realize that (service personnel) are taking care of the country and without them we’d be in a different world,” says Lee Rubenstein, commander of VFW #6370 on Marco Island, who served as an Army corporal during Vietnam.
Rubenstein credits the evolution of media for changing attitudes about military service and veterans. With a 24 hour news cycle, satellites and more television channels than ever before, viewers can bring the war into their homes like never before. New information is shared in an instant, unlike when Rubenstein served and newspapers were the main source of information.
“I think 9/11 changed a lot of it also,” he notes. “People saw the U.S. being physically attacked like in Pearl Harbor.” That single event, he believes, brought home the reminder that veterans and first responders put their lives on the line so that Americans can have the freedom we enjoy.
WW II veteran Fred Burnham, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, agrees.
“Terrorism has stimulated a feeling of protection – the need for protection – which sort of died off for a while,” he says. “That in turn has brought back more appreciation for people who’ve served.”
Burnham says you need only look at the crowds for Marco’s annual Memorial Day service, which have increased each year for the last decade, for evidence.
“I don’t think it’s a difference in the program, but a change in attitude,” he says. “There seems to be more respect to the guys who served than there was before.”
It’s that change in attitude, in part, that encouraged Keith Dameron to organize an exhibit of memorabilia from local veterans at Iberia Bank. The exhibit, which has daily additions and will be on display until June 18 to promote the building of the veteran’s memorial at Veterans Park, is just a small gesture to recognize the sacrifice of those who served.
“I’ve never served and I don’t come from a military family,” explained Dameron, who was not drafted during Vietnam. “Through the years, I’ve had a number of business relationships with veterans and I’ve found them to be professional, disciplined, good under pressure and inspirational.”
Dameron believes that generational influences also play a role in how veterans are treated. Like many who lived through the Vietnam era, Dameron believes veterans of that conflict are just now getting the recognition they deserve.
“I think there are a lot of people who look back at that time and are sorry for how they treated (or didn’t defend) servicemen. It was a national tragedy.”
Dameron says the stories veterans share with him as they bring their memorabilia are unforgettable.
“They start to talk about the circumstances, how they obtained the item or ribbon and I get the sense that this might be one of the first times that they’ve shared their story.”
The fact that today’s military is made up entirely of volunteers means service personnel know the risks they are taking, adds Bedford Biles, a decorated World War II veteran who received the Bronze Star and three Purple Heart medals. Although Memorial Day may be a time for retail sales and relaxation, he believes its meaning has not been lost on civilians.
“Memorial Day is for the solider (serviceman and woman) and what they’ve done for the country,” he says. “People understand what it’s for. They have their picnics and all, but it’s in honor of the solider.”