How To Observe Memorial Day (And Every Day) By Giving Back

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On Monday, May 29, banks, schools, post offices, government offices, and retail stores will close in honor of Memorial Day. If you're interested in spending your day off not getting sunburned or attending a barbecue, here are some ways to give back this Memorial Day (and every day after that).

Memorial Day initially began after the Civil War as a way of honoring fallen Union soldiers (inspired, in fact, by the remembrance of Confederate soldiers throughout the South). A number of towns both above and below the Mason-Dixon line have tried to lay claim on the first Memorial Day celebration, though it's never been clear who, actually, is responsible.

Following World War I, the holiday was expanded to include everyone who has died while serving the American Armed Forces. It gained a national following after World War II, and in 1967, its name was legally changed from "Decoration Day" — which called to mind the tradition of decorating fallen soldiers' graves — to Memorial Day.

As the last Monday in May, Memorial Day has since become a different beast altogether. Ask anyone in the United States how they celebrated, and there's a good chance their answer will include a short vacation, a trip to the beach, something involving the word "barbecue" — or, simply, nothing.

But if you're feeling the urge to do more or to step out of your comfort zone, here's some good news: there's plenty you can do to help honor the memory of fallen soldiers, and take care of the veterans still around.

Volunteer At A Homeless Shelter

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According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, around 11 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans, many of whom suffer from mental disorders and/or substance abuse issues (often, the two feed off one another).

In volunteering at a homeless shelter, you can provide relief for those who have suffered through combat, honoring both them and their fallen peers.

Or A Nursing Home

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Over 16 million Americans served in World War II; in 2016, the National WWII museum reported that only 620,000 were still alive (the last WWI veteran, Florence Green, died in 2012). Over 5.7 million served in the Korean War, and 2.7 million served in Vietnam, the youngest of whom are in their 60s. All of this is to say that almost every nursing home in the country houses at least a few veterans, and nursing homes can be incredibly lonely, isolating places.

Or A Soup Kitchen

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Soup kitchens began during the Depression in 1929, and have continued, in various forms, to the present. They operate under the belief that it's a community's responsibility to care for less fortunate. As aforementioned, homelessness, PTSD, and substance abuse continue to be struggles that prevent veterans from holding down jobs or apartments.

Donate To A Charity That Benefits Veterans Or The Families Of Fallen Soldiers

The Fallen and Wounded Soldiers Fund (FWSF), for instance, is a Michigan-based, all-volunteer organization that helps wounded soldiers with living expenses, and families of fallen soldiers shoulder that financial burden.

Donate To American Women Veterans

American Women Veterans serves both current and deceased female veterans as an advocacy partner and storytelling platform, and actively documents and honors women who continue to die in combat.

Donate To The Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) serves those left behind when a soldier dies in combat through grief support services, peer support networks, and counseling. Since 1994, it's served over 70,000 families, free of charge.

Donate To The United Service Organization

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The USO has provided services for service members and their families for over 75 years. Their programming often focuses on maintaining the connection between those serving and those back at home. The USO also provides financial assistance for families of recently fallen soldiers, helping them travel  

Participate In A StoryCorps Challenge

StoryCorps is an organization dedicated to preserving stories and fostering compassionate communication between humans. Though their primary listening event, "The Great Thanksgiving Listen," is, well, for Thanksgiving, their app allows you to conduct and archive an interview with anyone. You can also schedule a recording session at one of their Story Booths in Atlanta, Chicago or San Francisco.

Spend Some Time With A Veteran Family Member Or Friend

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Our generation doesn't understand the foundational trauma that a World War enacts. We've never witnessed a draft. Most of us haven't lost scores of friends to combat. Our grandparents, parents, and other family members have. Talk to them and, more importantly, listen.

Visit A Memorial Grave And Help With Its Upkeep

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Even just weeding around gravestones that look lost or forgotten makes a difference.