GREENDALE, Wis. — Every Memorial Day, we honor veterans who gave their lives protecting our freedom. But two years into the pandemic, it’s also important to remember the 22,000 U.S. veterans who lost their lives to COVID-19.
At the Greendale Veterans Memorial, Military “Taps” set a somber tone Monday morning for more than a hundred people who gathered to honor fallen veterans, both on the battlefield and to the invisible enemy known as Covid.
“It’s rattled us to a point to where we need to reflect upon each other,” said Terry Barrington.
Barrington is the commander of Greendale’s American Legion post, the largest in the state with more than 600 members.
Barrington says dozens from his post have sadly died from Covid within the past two years, but it isn’t just those who became ill who have felt the effects of the pandemic.
“One of the biggest struggles is isolation,” he said. “You’re looking at mental health, you’re looking at suicide. Those are the big ones right there. They don’t know where to go or they don’t have the pride to ask for help.”
While veterans aren’t the only ones who often struggle with mental health issues, several studies show they experience it more prevalently than others. Milwaukee’s VA Medical Center Director James McLain says they had to pivot quickly at the onset of the pandemic to meet the mental health needs of veterans and continue to do so to this day.
“The biggest impact has been the social impact,” McLain said. “Many of our veterans, whether it’s the VA or the local service organizations, that really is part of their home and family. And that separation over that period of time really had a major impact on a lot of people.”
Back at the Greendale American Legion post, Barrington says it means calling veterans to let them know they’re not alone, and creating social gatherings with virtual and outdoor options to keep them safe while continuing to be connected.
“We never leave a brother or sister behind,” he said. “We’re a family so we always remember the good times, we’ll always remember the bad times, but no matter what, we come together as one.”
The latest U.S. Census data shows Wisconsin has about 326,000 veterans. The state’s Department of Veterans Affairs says 40 percent of whom live in southeastern Wisconsin.