WASHINGTON – By the end of the day Thursday,Arlington National Cemetery had transformed into a sea of red,white and blue.
More than 1,300 members of the 3rd U.S. Army Infantry Regiment set flags in front of more than 220,000 headstones,as part of the “Flags In” ceremony held each year before Memorial Day at Arlington.
“Today we’re giving back to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Spc. Julian Johnson,22,of Xenia,Ohio,said. A self-described military brat who was born on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton,Ohio,Johnson figured it was the least he could do. “It’s only a small token of appreciation we can give toward them. They already gave it all.”
According to public affairs specialist Melissa Bohan,Arlington holds as many as 40 funerals in a typical week.
Mike Johnson,a social studies teacher at South Winneshiek Middle School,brought his eighth-grade class from Ossian,Iowa,to Arlington because he said it shows the class a valuable lesson.
“It really brings to life all the men and women that have fought in the wars from the beginning of the United States until today. I think if they don’t see this,it maybe doesn’t sink in,” Johnson said.
As the regiment worked for three hours to honor each headstone with a flag,lawmakers in Washington continued their work for those who have served and are still living.
Rep. Bill Johnson,R-Ohio,served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 26 years before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He also served as a member of the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs in the last congressional session. He said it was childhood imagination,his stepfather and a lack of resources that led him to enlist.
“From the time I was a young boy,I dreamed of flying and sailing through the air. My stepfather was in the Air Force,and I think that had a lot to inspire me.” Johnson said,“When I graduated from high school,college wasn’t really an option for me because I didn’t come from the kind of family that had the resources to go to college.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown,D-Ohio,honors the memory of his father,a World War II vet,by serving on the Committee on Veterans Affairs in the Senate.
“Most veterans don’t complain,they don’t whine. They’re like my dad. They wanted to come home and go back to work and do what they wanted to do. Raise a family,get a job,go to back to school if they need to,” he said.
Johnson said those he met in the service taught him the importance of being a leader.
“The kind of people that I met in the military,they learned early on that leadership isn’t about wearing a title or sitting in a big office,it’s about producing results. It’s about influencing the outcome,” Johnson said.
Despite their similar praise for the armed forces,the two men differed when they were asked about the lack of results in preventing the sequester and the negative effects it could have on veterans’ benefits.
“A number of members of Congress would rather give tax cuts for the wealthy than provide the benefits,” Brown said. “We give tax cuts to the wealthy,spend more money on war but skimp on so many veterans’ benefits. It’s just outrageous,and people have to hold politicians’ feet to the fire that do that.”
Johnson said,however,the blame lies directly with the commander-in-chief.
“We’ve got to remember the sequester was the president’s idea. We tried twice in the Republican-led House last Congress to replace the sequester with more responsible cuts. We received no cooperation from the Senate,and the president did not encourage it,” Johnson said.
Still,both men agreed it is the country’s responsibility to take care of veterans when they return home,something that has proved difficult for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Nearly 600,000 claims have been declared “backlogged,” meaning they’ve been pending for more than four months. Some claims have been pending for more than two years.
The House Committee on Veteran’s affairs held a hearing Wednesday to address the backlog. Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey testified that an initiative launched April 19 would be the first step in addressing the issue.
“I directed all regional offices to process within 60 days all rating claims pending for over two years. Once those claims are completed,we will focus on rating those claims that have been pending for more than one year,” Hickey said.
She said the VA intends to eliminate the backlog by 2015.
This new plan,however,didn’t stop Rep. Jeff Miller,R-Fla.,the committee chair,from introducing legislation Thursday that would create a commission to investigate the backlog.
“Government bureaucrats under both Republican and Democrat administrations created the backlog,so it’s only natural to solicit outside help from the private sector and the VSO community in working toward a solution,” Miller said.
He was referring to veteran service organizations,including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Brown said anyone can help a veteran by donating time.
“You can work with USO,you can work with local posts of Veterans of Foreign wars or the American Legion,” Brown said.
Johnson said a few words can make all the difference to a veteran.
“It doesn’t take money to say thank you to a veteran. It is amazing what happens when you walk up to a veteran and say,‘You know something,I really appreciate your service,’” Johnson said.
Reach reporter Allen Henry at [email protected] or 202-326-9868. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.