Memorial Day is a day to remember family for 88-year-old Lee Witcher, who fought in World War II along with eight of his relatives.
Four of his uncles fought, Witcher said, and the two who made it back home soon succumbed to their injuries. His brother also served in the war, as did three of his brothers-in-law. Witcher, an enlisted man in the Navy’s amphibious warfare branch, went on to serve in Korea as well. All told, he said, he has had family members serve in every war since the Civil War.
Witcher was the only World War II veteran at the Memorial Day service Sunday at the Raleigh National Veterans Cemetery, hosted by the local American Legion Post 1.
A small, solemn crowd of about 50 people came to honor those who died serving the country. Charlie Birdsong, the American Legion chaplain, prayed that they would “rest in the peace they so valiantly earned.”
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More than 5,000 of the dead surrounded the living Sunday, their tombstones a silent reminder of past sacrifices.
Witcher, though, was chipper Sunday and wanted to talk about something that came from the bloodshed of World War II – the G.I. Bill.
“That’s the greatest benefit we’ve ever won,” he said, adding that he used it himself to become an engineer. His career led him to Raleigh in the 1970s with Carolina Power & Light, as part of the team that built the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant.
He wasn’t the only one talking about benefits Sunday. A younger generation of veterans is now returning home from the ongoing fight against terror, and Gulf War veteran Patricia Harris said the country needs to do more to help them as well as the older generations.
Veterans still struggle to receive good physical and mental health care, said Harris, a past statewide commander of the American Legion. It’s not just the enemy that is killing veterans anymore.
“Suicide – 23 a day,” she said. “Another issue. We’re losing them from a battle of the mind.”
According to a Department of Veterans Affairs study of those deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan between 2001 and 2007, suicide was the cause of more than 1 in 5 deaths. Those seeking help can find it online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by calling the Veterans Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Harris said veterans deserve more than just thanks for being willing to endure harsh conditions and time away from their families on behalf of the country.
But with the scourge of suicide, homelessness and addiction, she said, “this is hardly the thanks of a grateful nation.”
Harris called for action from the government to serve its surviving veterans better. She also called on people celebrating Monday to remember why they have the holiday in the first place.
“Enjoy your weekend,” she said. “Because it’s been paid for.”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran