At Large with Tom Williams > > Memorial Day and broken promises

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Well, it all started again over the weekend.

Memorial Day Weekend offers a sort of preview of the summer months, even though we are technically about three weeks away from summer. Thousands and thousands of visitors head to our resort towns on the final weekend in May, clogging up the highways in one direction and causing things to move more slowly in the beach communities. If you park on the street at your home in one of those towns and you are within a few blocks of the beach, good luck.

We need these vacationers. They improve the economy and bring the towns to life. There were longer lines at Mack Pizza and at all the Johnson’s Popcorn locations. The stores were bustling at Shriver’s, Fralinger’s and James. All of the piers were alive with excitement – Wonderland, Morey’s and Steel.

And there was lots of action on the beaches, too. For good reason.

It seems that the five best beaches in New Jersey are in Cape May County. Ocean City’s beach was voted No. 1 in a survey by the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, in association with Richard Stockton College. Wildwood was second, followed by Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood. The Cape May beach was fifth. And that wasn’t all. Stone Harbor was No. 7 and Sea Isle City No. 9, giving the state’s southernmost county seven of the best nine beaches in the Garden State.

Ocean City was also No. 1 for day trips, family vacations and ecotourism. The only three beaches in the state’s top 10 not in Cape May County were Belmar, Asbury Park and Island Beach State Park. The selection of Island Beach was a pleasant surprise since it was hit harder by Sandy than any beach in the state. 

On Monday, the final day of the big weekend, there were ceremonies and parades all over the area to honor those who lost their lives while serving their country.    

Originally, the day was called Decoration Day and celebrated every May 30th. But in 1971, in keeping with the move of other holidays to Mondays to make a three-day weekend consistent, Decoration Day became Memorial Day and was scheduled for the last Monday in May.

Sadly, however, while veterans were being honored and remembered in ceremonies across the country, thousands of them were having a hard time getting the health benefits they were promised and desperately need. President Obama indicated he is standing by his Veterans Affairs Secretary, retired Gen. Eric Shinseki. That puts the problem squarely on his desk in the Oval Office. And, with more troops coming home from Afghanistan this year, the pressure on the VA will become even greater.

But this is a problem that has been around far too long.

When George W. Bush declared two wars, he failed to expand veterans’ facilities to handle all of the combat veterans who were being created.  

Back in the 1980s, the VA’s chief medical officer directed researchers to leave problem hospitals out of reports, and the Reagan administration denied federal liability in veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange, which was found to cause, nervous system, digestive and respiratory disorders. The administration suppressed evidence of harm from the defoliant, which was used in Vietnam.

It wasn’t until George H.W. Bush became president that those suffering from Agent Orange ailments started to get fair treatment.

In fact, New Jersey created an Agent Orange Commission to develop blood tests that would detect the chemical, but then Gov. Christine Todd Whitman disbanded the commission before its research was completed.

Back in 1932, more than 10,000 World War I veterans marched on Washington to get the war bonuses they had been promised by the Woodrow Wilson administration in 1917. President Herbert Hoover greeted them with armed troops and tanks.

And, in 1783, a group of soldiers took Congress hostage, demanding pensions and back pay that they had been promised. The leaders of the protesting group were sentenced to death. The sentences were later commuted by some clearer thinking individuals.

Those are just some highlights of the mistreatment of military veterans by America. There isn’t enough space here to list it all.

It’s nice that baseball teams wear camouflage jerseys and caps. It is nice that you can purchase automobiles, furniture – just about anything – during Memorial Day Weekend sales. And we all have seen the moving commercials that show active duty soldiers surprising their mothers at home, their children at school or their siblings at weddings. They are wonderful tributes that demonstrate how important it is to family members to get their soldiers home. 

But they do not tell the whole story.

From presidents Washington to Obama, for over two centuries, America has failed to live up to the promises it made to military veterans. President Obama has frequently spoken about his intention to correct these failures. He has a little more than two years left to prove that he can do a better job than almost all of his predecessors.

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Words to Remember: “So long as I'm commander-in-chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known. When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you've served us because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their head or the care that they need when they come home.”

–  Barack Obama

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