by staff writer Laura Davis

GratefulMemorial Day is the unofficial start to summer. We go to the beach, we barbeque with friends and family, we go to baseball games, have pool parties, and celebrate our American lives. It’s important to appreciate our freedom to do all of these things, but it’s also important to remember and honor those who gave their lives to make it all possible: today and every day.

How could we ever repay the men and women who have died in service of our nation? Well, truthfully, we can’t repay them, but we can give some of our own time and effort in memory of their sacrifices. We can recognize that our freedom comes with a set of responsibilities and duties to our nation. We can make ourselves better citizens, strengthen our society, and acknowledge that we, as individuals, are the nation for which these soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen fought.  How, exactly, can we do that?

We can educate ourselves. For many of us, it’s been years since we took a class in civics. We tend to lose sight of the principles and ideals upon which our nation was built, and we often fail to stop and think about how those ideals and principles should apply to our modern lives. We get so caught up in dividing ourselves into “we” and “they” that we find ourselves mired in arguments that simply cannot be won. These arguments are often based on half-remembered lessons of the past.

Challenge #1: re-read the Constitution and its amendments. If you’ve never read The Federalist Papers, read that, too. It gives a great deal of insight into the intentions of the founding fathers as they were writing the Constitution. It has 85 sections. You don’t need to read it all at once. Read two sections a week. Read The Complete Anti-Federalist if you want a counterpoint to The Federalist Papers.

We can take part. In our last national general election (November 2012), voter turnout was about 58% of all eligible voters nationwide. The city of Los Angeles recently held a mayoral election, for which slightly less than 20% of eligible voters cast ballots. Doing your homework and voting is easier than ever before in the digital age. You can access voting and performance records of incumbents online, and find both partisan and non-partisan analysis of campaigns and issues, all from the comfort of your couch.

Learning and reviewing how the electoral process works is critical, and very easily accomplished, yet many people skip it. For example, as a pollworker of 25 years, I can say with certainty that there is a great deal of confusion among voters about what primary elections are, and how they work. Each party decides in every state how they will handle primary elections (or whether they will even have primaries), and the states themselves apply rules of their own. California changed its primary election rules in 2010, after the passage of Proposition 14, yet many voters in the 2012 presidential primary were unaware of the new system.

Challenge #2: Review how the overall electoral process works, learn how your state’s primary and general elections work, register or re-register to vote if you need to, do your homework, and vote!

If you’re already a regular voter, good job! Your challenge is to get involved with your government. Do you have an idea you want them to implement? Learn how grassroots ballot initiatives work. Start petitions, get your voice heard, and get your idea on the ballot.

We can give back. The number of possible ways in which each of us can give back is immeasurable, but since we’re talking about honoring veterans, I’m going to focus on giving back to them. The VA centers and hospitals are always in need of volunteers and donations, in order to serve veterans better. I know one woman who brings a pot of soup to her local VA every week, so that vets who are waiting for appointments can have something good to eat. A quick call to my local VA told me that they are in need of paperback books, magazines in good shape, and individually-wrapped food items.

Depending upon your area, you may also find groups outside the VA who are working with vets who are homeless. These groups are always happy to have volunteers and donations.

Challenge #3: Do something. Call your local VA or other organization catering to the needs of veterans, and ask what they need. Bake muffins. Make soup. Save and donate your magazines; you probably get a digital version anyway. See if your dog can qualify as a therapy dog (this is a process, and it takes some commitment and a bit of money) and take him to visit. Go play board games with vets who are stuck in the hospital. Maybe read to the ones whose injuries prevent them from reading. Just commit a couple of hours a week to going and visiting with them. Our veterans are brave men and women, but when they are “on the job,” they have a purpose and a duty that helps keep them going. Being hospitalized (especially if you’re away from your friends and family) is depressing and scary, even for the bravest person.

Today, let’s celebrate our freedom with family, fun and friends, and raise a glass to the memory of those who have lost their lives to protect that freedom. Let’s take a moment to reflect on how each of us can honor that memory. After the apple pie is enjoyed and the charcoal has burnt out, let us take action and be a nation worthy of the sacrifices made for us.