Today, Memorial Day is a civi holiday intended to honor those military members who lost their lives in wartime service while November’s Veterans Day is intended to honor those who survived. Yet both holidays are a time to pause in reflection on how so many hundreds of thousands have been willing to sacrifice their own lives in defense of their nation. Like their fellow citizens, First Ladies have made the effort to honor both the living and the dead of U,S. military engagement. These particular ones, however, made specific efforts to do so, their efforts resulting in tangible actions.
Even at the time of the American Revolution, Martha Washington was held in especially high esteem by those fighting in the Continental Army led by her husband in the effort to win independence from England.
Over the next decade, into her tenure as the wife as the first president, “Lady Washington” as she was fondly called by American Revolutionary veterans was the person they could always count on for help whether they were enduring physical suffering, poverty or unemployment.
In both of the temporary US capital cities of New York and Philadelphia, veterans would come to the presidential mansions where the Washington lived to make their case for help; the first First Lady would then call on the wealthy and powerful within the circle of friends and colleagues of her and her husband to provide help to the individual in need.
During the Civil War, this passionate supporter of the abolition of slavery, worked in the battlefields of Virginia, serving as a nurse to those wounded while serving under the command of her husband, a Union Army general.
As both the First Lady of Ohio and then the United States, Mrs. Hayes helped raise money and organize institutions that provided necessary care and support to veterans of both the Union and Confederate Army, as well as the widows and orphans of those soldiers who had been killed.
As First Lady, she always welcomed Civil War veterans to visit her in the private quarters of the White House and was once even found sewing the clothes of one such fellow.
Mrs. Hayes took the meaning of Memorial Day with solemnity. She also joined the thousands of other postwar Americans in decorating the graves of the fallen on the designated national holiday.
Following the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, the inciting event which led to the Spanish-American War, this First Lady led the effort in raising funds for the creation of the first memorial honor those fallen in the war, the soldiers killed in the ship’s explosion.
During the war, she insisted on walking through the overcrowded and disorganized camps established to house and train the soldiers soon to ship out to the Pacific battle front and ignored the squalor to risk her own precious health to shake hands and engage with those she encountered along the way.
She also made an effort to always welcome any individual soldiers she saw walking near the White House, once even supplying a young soldier with bananas, to beef up his health.
When a scandal broke out over the tainted canned beef that the War Department was supplying to troops, this First Lady led the effort to have the President fire the War Secretary, believing his disregard for safety led to harming the troops.
During World War I., while her husband was serving as a US Senator, she worked at the canteen in Washington’s Union Station, dispensing coffee, cigarettes, reading materials and games to those enlisted men who came by the trainloads on their way to training camps and eventually the European war.
As many soon after began returning with bodily wounds, missing limbs and post-traumatic stress syndrome, she began to volunteer regularly as an aide at Walter Reed Hospital.
As First Lady, she continued her devotion to the thousands in the wards there, helped foment the creation of the first Veterans Bureau, and advocated on behalf of their postwar care. She led the national effort to sell red-dyed paper “poppies” which helped raise private funds fort further care of the World War I vets.
She even sewed herself the mourning ribbon for the flag-draped coffin of the Unknown Soldier and placed it there while it lay in the UAS Capitol Building rotunda, soon to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery where it has remained the point of honor for succeeding generations of Presidents who come to present a wreath each Memorial Day.
Few wartime First Ladies more publicly and vigorously advocated on behalf of the rights of active US servicemen than did Mrs. Roosevelt during World War II.
To get the most realistic understanding of their needs she made three unprecedented overseas trips to spontaneously speak to Army and Navy servicemen and servicewomen in training camps and at battlefield bases, first to England and Ireland, then to the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, and finally to the Caribbean Basin and South America.
She went directly to the President when she discovered a discrepancy in their care and engaged with generals and admirals to right the wrongs she observed. All four of her own sons served in the war – and by coincidence she ran into two of them during her travels. It was later estimated that she saw a full ten percent of all enlisted US service personnel during the war. This video summarizes her activities on those trips and those she saw:
In her first year as First Lady, Pat Nixon flew in an open-air helicopter over an active battlefield into the jungles of Vietnam to visit and speak with those soldiers who had been wounded and were rushed into medic tents for care.
As the Vietnam War drew to a close, she hosted an unprecedented White House dinner held in a large tent on the South Lawn to honor those American prisoners of war who had been held and tortured by communist North Vietnamese troops.
As First Lady, Hillary Clinton fought to have Gulf War Syndrome recognized as a genuine affect on service personnel fighting in that conflict.
As Senator on the Armed Services Committee, she fought to establish new services for military members and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. She regularly worked across the aisle to expand military benefits, including to ensure that all members of the Reserves and National Guard and their families had access to health benefits; to expand benefits afforded to surviving spouses; and to broaden protections afforded by the Family and Medical Leave Act to the family members of wounded service members. During her effort to reform national health care, Hillary Clinton came to grasp the extent of suffering by veterans of the Gulf War who had been exposed to the chemical weapon known as Agent Orange, an herbicide. She called for and was successful in provoking congressional hearings into the US Defense Department’s use of the toxic substance known as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and investigations into the long-range damage it caused on the health of veterans of that war.
Mrs. Clinton’s concern about Agent Orange continued during her tenure as a US Senator and Secretary of State. During her historic visit to Vietnam she met with officials to discuss joint efforts to continue to clear sites that had been contaminated by the poison and medical responses to the health problems it caused.
It was during her husband’s initial presidential campaign that Michelle Obama first learned of the often desperate needs of families of active military personnel in the Iraqi War and Afghani War, and continuing US military presence and promised to make their struggle part of her agenda if her husband was elected.
Within weeks of becoming First Lady, she began to tour US bases and engage with military families to assess the greatest problems of housing, education, childcare and food in the context of cost-of-living rises and slashed federal budgets, initially visiting North Carolina’s Fort Bragg.
“These are people who are willing to send their loved ones off to perhaps give their lives, the ultimate sacrifice, yet they’re living back at home on food stamps. It’s not right and it’s not where we should be as a nation,” she observed.
She successfully advocated for a three percent increase in the Administration’s 2011 budget, a total of $8.8 billion, and made the case for coverage of mental health care for returning military personnel and their families ($1.9 billion), military base childcare ($1.3 billion), spousal career development ($84 million) and necessary Coast Guard housing ($14 million).
In seeking to fulfill the President’s directive of engaging the private sector in the effort, she created”Joining Forces” to advance the goal of increasing support for military families’ employment, education, and wellness as well as mount a public awareness campaign of the needs.