For as long as I can remember, I’ve made a habit of visiting Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. My grandfather, a career Army officer who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, is buried there. It’s usually a somber experience – families camped out by the graves of their lost son, daughter, husband, wife, or parent, or service members visiting their fallen comrades.
As someone who comes from a military family and served as a civilian in the Pentagon for a number of years, I always make an effort to visit Section 60. This plot of hallowed ground is the final resting place for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in America’s most recent wars, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But in 2020, Memorial Day was different. COVID-19 restrictions limited access for visitors, and as I turned onto Eisenhower Drive to enter the cemetery, it was abundantly clear just how different things felt. Typically, hundreds of people would be there to honor their fallen loved ones. But in 2020, even on Memorial Day, the grounds were eerily empty.
Without thinking much of it, I offered to stop and photograph headstones during my visit for those who couldn’t visit their loved ones in person. It started as a simple tweet that I thought might bring a handful of responses from friends who served. But in just a few minutes, I was flooded with requests from families across the country. Social media helped me reach hundreds of strangers and allowed thousands of others to watch it happen in real time.
Even months later, I’m overwhelmed by the response and the experience of sharing those names. I still visit many of those graves today, and I never would have predicted the sense of responsibility I would feel to ensure these heroes’ stories were shared again and again.
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I had only one regret last year: I ran out of time to visit more of the fallen.
I’m determined to not let that happen this year.
That’s why, this Memorial Day, I’ve turned to one of the nation’s leading veteran service organizations, Travis Manion Foundation, to help me ensure that all our fallen heroes can receive the honor and recognition they truly deserve.
Over the past few months, I’ve become good friends with Ryan Manion, who is the president of Travis Manion Foundation. Her brother, Marine 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion, is buried in Section 60.
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We’re working together to create #TheHonorProject, and we’ll be teaming up with volunteers to visit the final resting places of heroes buried in Arlington whose loved ones can’t be there themselves this Memorial Day.
In a time of continued isolation, I believe this small act of service and recognition is even more important.
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#TheHonorProject will allow us to connect the families of those who gave their lives defending our freedom with volunteers. Our volunteers will visit their gravesites, learn, document, and share the stories of these fallen heroes through social media — a true testament to the power of community and a living representation of Travis Manion’s motto “If Not Me Then Who…”
While COVID-19 restrictions drove us to create this project, it was clear from the response last year that this is a real, ongoing need. So many families just simply live too far away to visit their loved ones on Memorial Day.
So we’re asking families of our fallen military members buried in Arlington National Cemetery to allow us to honor your fallen hero’s legacy this Memorial Day by requesting a visit from a volunteer.
Our goal will be to honor 4,000 fallen heroes who’ve been laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery this Memorial Day Weekend by placing a flag and sharing their story on social media with #TheHonorProject hashtag.
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Countless Americans have stepped forward and paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation — a country that, for all its flaws, they believed was worth fighting for. While the challenges of this past year have divided neighbors, friends, and family members, honoring those who sacrificed can and should be the common ground that unites us.
I believe every American sees the importance of honoring those who were willing to give their lives so we can enjoy the freedoms we value today – and I hope you join me in this effort on Memorial Day.
For more information on #TheHonorProject visit www.travismanion.org/thehonorproject
Ryan Manion is the president of Travis Manion Foundation and co-founder of the Honor Project.