Since the end of the Civil War, our nation has set aside the Memorial Day holiday to honor those who have died in service to this country. As hundreds of Louisiana National Guard members and reservists mobilize for duty in war-torn Iraq, this Memorial Day is also an appropriate time to express support for men and women in the armed forces who are now in harm's way.
With polls showing Americans divided over the continued U.S. presence in Iraq, and our country's honor indelibly stained by the prisoner abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib, it's more important than ever to make a distinction between support for the war and support for our sons and daughters in uniform. Regardless of how you feel about the president's conduct of the war and over-arching policy issues, our troops in Iraq and the needy military families here at home need our support.
That's why an ongoing care package drive led by Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu is more than just a good thought. It's a good beginning. Throughout the month of May, Louisiana residents and visitors can donate personal hygiene items and other goods to our troops by bringing donations to state welcome centers. Personal messages to all Louisiana service members may be tucked inside donations of Cajun food seasonings, sunscreen and other requested items, according to Landrieu, who is coordinating the statewide "Salute Our Troops" drive. Members of the Louisiana National Guard and the state chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) will sort and package the goods for shipping. The cost of transporting the donations overseas and to Louisiana military families will be borne by the state Office of Tourism.
The list of requested items should give us all a better understanding of the basic health needs and comforts that Americans take for granted. "Baby wipes are very popular with troops serving overseas because of limited opportunities to shower," Landrieu says. "Flea collars are also needed; personnel wear them around their boots to repel fleas." Other recommended donations include:
• Personal hygiene items: shaving cream and razors; toothbrushes and toothpaste; soap; sunscreen and suntan lotion; lip balm; foot powder; anti-bacterial and hand sanitizing lotions; and skin moisturizers.
• Edibles: assorted crackers, cookies, pretzels and chips; hard candies and gum; canned peanuts; canned dips; toaster pastries; powdered hot chocolate and drink mixes that use water only; canned sausages.
• Other goods: phone cards; pencils and small pencil sharpeners; pens, stationery and blank greeting cards, birthday and anniversary cards; sunglasses; inexpensive watches; disposable cameras; fly strips and flyswatters; playing cards; and small board games.
Donors can bring items to most state welcome centers (including one at 529 St. Ann St. in the French Quarter). A complete list of sites and hours of operation is available at the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism Web site (www.crt.state.la.us/salute) or by calling either 1-800-33GUMBO or (225) 342-7009.
The program ends May 31, but other efforts to support Louisiana troops are underway. The U.S. Senate recently approved a measure by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) that will provide tax relief to employers who continue to pay the salaries of deployed National Guard and reserve members. The Landrieu Amendment would provide a 50 percent tax credit to employers of Guard and Reserve employees, with a cap of $30,000 ($15,000 credit) per employee. More than 3,500 Louisiana guardsmen and reservists are on active duty. Many citizen soldiers face a reduction in pay when called to serve -- a call that can hurt the productivity of small businesses. "Most employers simply cannot afford to pay an employee serving overseas, especially during these tough times," Sen. Landrieu says. We support the Landrieu tax credit, which will help ease the financial strain on Louisiana troops and their employers alike.
Meanwhile, Mayor Ray Nagin's military advisory committee has kicked off a campaign to secure shopping discounts for military personnel and their families in the area. The effort is needed. Raising a family on a soldier's pay is tough.
The U.S. Department of Defense Web site (www.defenselink.mil) contains more suggestions on ways to support the troops. Some examples:
• Travelers can donate frequent-flier miles to help troops on leave from Iraq reach their destinations via "Operation Hero Miles" (www.heromiles.org).
• Homes for Troops, founded by a Massachusetts construction supervisor, raises money to build specially designed houses for troops returning home with disabilities.
• Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is a national nonprofit organization that provides a network for people who have lost a loved one serving in any branch of the armed forces, including the National Guard, the reserves and the Coast Guard. TAPS provides grief counseling referral and crisis information and assistance. Call (800) 959-TAPS.
• Two new nonprofit organizations -- Operation Noble Foster and the Military Pets Foster Project -- have placed thousands of military pets in foster homes while their owners are abroad.
More than ever, Memorial Day should be more than just a three-day weekend. As always, it's a time to honor our nation's war dead. This year, it's also an opportunity to remember those still serving.