Joseph Martin stood before the preserved American flag hanging from the wall in his entertainment room.
The flag, folded into a tidy triangle inside a display case, honors his father, who died in an accident after serving in the Air Force. As he walked out of his front door, he was ready for the day.
Spring had peaked, and summer was just a few weeks away. Martin got into his truck and fought traffic from Layton all the way to his family’s home in Alpine, where friends and family arrived for a potluck filled with fresh grilled meats and veggies. As plates were cleared, the conversation shifted from lighthearted to more serious, to stories of the past and friendships lost; those who have sacrificed their lives for this country are remembered.
It’s a common Memorial Day scene. Like many other veterans, Martin, a former Salt Lake Community College engineering student who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force, enjoys spending this day with friends and family, remembering those who died while serving.
“It is a time to remember the friends and family that have served in the military and who have passed away,” Martin said. “Every year, I go to a barbecue with family and friends. As the kids go off and play, the rest of us talk about memories of friends and of our father.”
For veteran Chris Crackel, a former Air Force staff sergeant, Memorial Day marks a day of reverence.
“It is the day which this country gives thanks for the sacrifices to our service members,” he said. “It is the day I remember my grandfather and my friends that have given their lives in the line of duty.”
Crackel has his own routine each year. In addition to paying quiet respect to his grandfather — a World War II veteran of the “Red Ball Express” in Italy — he makes a drink, watches war documentaries and revisits a YouTube video of his graduation from Combat Control School.
“I marvel at how young we all were, and how proud I was to be there,” Crackel said of the clips that show his training team dressed in service blues as they received honors from the squadron commander. “It’s a solemn day of remembrance for those who have gone to their reward before me. I know very few people that would even understand why I do what I do on this day, let alone the bond I share with the men I’m remembering.”
Today, there are about 19 million U.S. veterans, or about 10% of the U.S. population, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. That number is down from past generations, a trend the Pew Research Center expects will continue.
An April 5 report from the research center’s “Fact Tank” found that the overall share of the U.S. population with military experience is declining. Census Bureau data shows that about 7% of U.S. adults were veterans in 2018, down from 18% in 1980, which coincided with decreases in active-duty personnel.
“Over the past half-century, the number of people on active duty has dropped significantly from 3.5 million in 1968, during the military draft era, to about 1.4 million; or less than 1% of all U.S. adults in today’s all-volunteer force,” Pew reported.
Memorial Day, declared a national holiday by Congress in 1971, had been known as Decoration Day since 1898.
Now, as Arlington Cemetery reports, about three million people visit the cemetery each year. Right before Memorial Day weekend each year, a tradition called the “Flags In” brings together every available soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment and places small American flags in front of more than 228,000 headstones.
In Utah, the Department of Veterans Affairs serves military veterans and their families by “opening doors to benefits, education, and jobs, while advocating for Utah’s military bases and service members.”
In March, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill that would reduce income taxes for Utahns on Social Security and military retirement.
“Utah does a lot for vets, and I would be hard-pressed to find better benefits elsewhere,” said Sean Siegal of the U.S. Air Force. “If they eliminate the tax on my retirement, that’s money I can use.”
According to Pew Research, “In a March 2019 survey, a 72% majority of U.S. adults (and identical 72% shares of Republicans and Democrats) said that if they were making the federal budget, they would increase spending for veterans’ benefits and services.”
Martin, a former USAF aircraft mechanic, said the transition from active service can be a challenge, and support from the VA and organizations like SLCC Veterans Services is useful.
“At SLCC, I was able to use their VA resources,” he said. “The VA office [is] very thoughtful and helpful towards veterans like me. They were able to assist in keeping track of my Montgomery GI bill. It helped to make my college experience go smoothly.”
Bevan Hulet, an Army veteran that served in the Military Police, said veterans just want to be treated like other civilians after discharge.
“I don’t mind when people approach me about my experiences in the military. Just keep in mind that there is a broad spectrum of personalities and beliefs in the veteran community. It is as diverse as the rest of humanity,” Hulet said. “There is no cookie-cutter mold that we fit into. A lot of people don’t like my idea that we are nothing special because of our services, but I tend to believe we are no different from any other person out there.”