"Memorial May" is perhaps more significant this year as the U.S. prepares to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. With that decision comes awareness of the support that veterans need stateside.
Not a day goes by that Stephen Holley doesn't think about, or miss, serving in the military.
“It’s not like you can just flip a switch and come home and put all that behind you. A lot of that has to be unpacked, and unpacking that takes a period of time," Holley said.
He would know, after five years as a Seal Officer in Seal Team 5 and four deployments.
"For me, it was taking the uniform off, it was trying to find an identity and trying to find fulfillment.”
Now, Holley is president, CEO and co-founder of Carry The Load, a nonprofit that exists to honor the true meaning of Memorial Day and support other nonprofits that help veterans.
“Through physical pain comes emotional purge; it was the literal and figurative reference to the load he was carrying and that’s the way Carry the Load was born," Holley said.
The 10th annual Memorial May Awareness Campaign will be in-person this year. The organization shared videos of the event from prior years; four different relays spanning some 15,000 miles will culminate in Dallas to honor those who served and sacrificed.
Holley says “the struggle becomes when you lose that identity, you’re not sure what the next chapter looks like. You lose that sense of fulfillment, that leads to isolation and struggle, and me personally, some substance abuse to cope with that. But finding that identity, and serving other people, that’s really the key for me and a lot of other people.”
“When they come to The Mission Continues, they’re telling us, 'we have all this potential, we want to continue to serve, if not in the military then where can we serve.' And we’re able to give them the skills they’re looking for and point them in the direction of the greatest need that we have right here at home,” said Mary Beth Bruggeman, president of The Mission Continues, which does just that for veterans, who continue their work by volunteering to serve their community.
“We’re able to impact veterans by connecting them to broader networks of veterans and non-veterans. We’re able to help them build skills. They can take what they learned, and did, and experienced in the military, and build on that."
After 8 years as a combat engineer in the Marine Corps, Bruggeman says this troop withdrawal will bring unanswered questions and challenges.
“I think what we’re going to find is a little bit of a delayed reaction of some of the mental health challenges that our veterans have been harboring for some time.”
She says there will be no parade, no homecoming, and so many have given up so much. Bruggeman says of those veterans, women are often overlooked.
“They’re serving in the same wars, they’re serving on the same front lines, but when they come home there’s an assumption that the man standing next to them is a veteran and they are not.”
Holley says returning servicemembers should seek out organizations to get involved with.
“Do not isolate, get involved. There’s veterans organizations in every city or town, whether it's through your employer or the community or church, you can find something if you look hard enough. More importantly, you have to find an avenue to continue to serve.”