On her way home recently, Sonia Fernandez drove past a West Covina billboard that surprised her. “Happy Memorial Day, honoring all those who served.” She says the sign reflects the confusion many have about the significance of May’s annual tribute.
Sonia Fernandez knows all about Memorial Day. She served for four years in the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton and was injured in active duty, breaking her hip and severely injuring her knee as the result of her military service. Fernandez downplays the injuries, which she characterizes as not as significant as what happened to other vets.
“As a veteran, it’s hard when someone thanks you for your service on Memorial Day because you have friends who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” she explains. “For me and for many others, it takes away from the sacrifice when there’s no distinction between the ultimate sacrifice and those of us who served in the military. No education takes place to honor or distinguish Memorial Day from Veterans Day. I find myself trying to educate people when Memorial or Veterans Day comes up.”
What’s behind the disconnect? Sonia says so few people serve today that military service is really an afterthought. “Even in the educational system, my teacher friends confuse Memorial and Veterans Day. In past generations, families knew a member who served but so few people serve that not many know someone who is serving. That explains why lots of people don’t get it,” she adds. “They aren’t close enough to the situation so they tend not to pay attention or be aware of the needs or situation or a particular group.”
What can be done? Sonia believes the level of public understanding will shift if stories are told. “ The media could play an important part by telling the stories to humanize veterans. A good friend of mine is a director at PBS and tells stories about veterans. Profile people, highlight how they’re trying to make a difference,” she says. “We can have elementary students send Valentine’s cards to the VA hospital -- something Ann Landers would do,” she suggests. “It’s the simple things that can be done. It’s a matter of making it a priority. We have to be aware of the needs of veterans and those who are serving, people who really need assistance. We can create a buy-in for others to take up the cause and to help advocate for veterans.”
Advocating for veterans has been a focus of Sonia’s post-military career. She was appointed by Governor Schwartzenegger and Gov. Brown as a California Employment Training Commissioner, focused on veterans’ issues -- and served as Western Coordinator on the DNC Veterans and Military Families Council. Currently, she is a Defense Council Member on the Truman National Security Project.
How does Sonia (photo left) see the status of Veterans’ Affairs in the current administration? “I think, especially with the last administration, we made lots of progress but for the current president, Veterans’ Affairs are not a priority. We don’t know his plan but we are not hearing his plan to change and create opportunities,” she worries. “We have to rely on community-based organizations to make a difference, groups like Truman National Security Project, to bring veterans’ issues to the forefront. We need dialogue and discussion about vets. W e need to know who to turn to as a guide-- who will lift up the issue and carry it. We don’t have anyone truly making veterans a priority.”
One of the key issues Sonia sees is the stigma that most vets suffer from PTSD. “We’ve got pretty great leadership skills that would be an asset to any organization that invests in working with vets,” she says. “The perception that we all have PTSD is wrong. When I was laid off from the Laborers’ Union and trying to find a job, people were afraid to hire a vet because they assumed I would be bringing baggage or all these trauma disorders as a result of my service. If I can achieve what I did in the military and could overcome any situation, I would be a success. That’s true of most vets, more the norm than not.”
Sonia adds, “While there’s room to grow, there’s always the opportunity to make something better and not focus on what isn’t being done.” With education and exposure, hopefully most will be able consider Memorial Day as a chance to honor those who sacrificed their lives in service to our country -- and in general, honor those who served by treating vets with the respect they deserve.
(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles writer and a columnist for CityWatch.)