Who will tend our veterans memorials in the future?
In the town of Streator, IL where I live, there is a poignant memorial to Streator veterans who have fought in every war since the Civil War. It is lovingly maintained by the local VFW as the granite monuments for each war are carefully cleaned and fresh flowers placed around the memorial several times during the spring and summer.
A nearby town also has a monument to the fallen. This memorial, in an old, unkept cemetary, lists the names of those who died. Many of the names are unreadable due to weathering. The monument itself is askew. Grass grows high around the memorial and the singular impression that is left is that the cemetary and the monument have been abandoned to time.
I don't know why that memorial is in such a state. The town is small and they may not have a local veterans organization. Older folks who might have once cared enough to tend the memorial may be dead or unable to get around. Regardless of the reason, it is a sad, mournful sight.
And it's happening everywhere in America:
The National Trust for Historic Preservation waged a 2 1/2-year fight to restore the aging Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., when some people proposed replacing it. Far less disagreement surrounded a decision to update the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco after a powerful earthquake in 1989.
In Greensboro, N.C., residents have been grappling with what to do with the city's own decaying tribute to the soldiers of World War I.
The Greensboro World War Memorial Stadium hosted minor league baseball for decades and even served as a location for notable sports films such as "Leatherheads" and "Bull Durham."
As a classics professor at University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Wharton has a soft spot for historic places. But he recognizes there are many other priorities competing for the millions of dollars it would take to restore the stadium.
A city group is exploring different ways to use the space, and preservation advocates hope the monument can be saved even if that means changing the stadium's purpose.
For many residents, the structure's architectural and historic significance pales in comparison to more immediate needs.
"The war was a long time ago," Wharton said. "I don't think it's meaningful for most people."
Sometimes, communities decide that memorials aren't worth the price.
In Michigan's upper peninsula, the Wakefield Memorial Building once stood as a grand structure overlooking a lake in Wakefield, an old mining town. The memorial, built in 1924 to commemorate the sacrifices of World War I soldiers, was expansive, including a banquet hall, meeting room and theater.
By the 1950s, the community couldn't afford the upkeep of the building and sold it to a private owner. Over the years, there were attempts to renovate the structure. But it was deemed too expensive and by 2010, the building was demolished.
Here might be a clue as to why this state of affairs with war memorials exists. The city of Beverly, MA has canceled the annual Memorial Day Parade due to lack of healthy veterans able to march in it:
That gets to the heart of the problem. In Beverly, there just are not enough veterans alive who are well enough to march in the parade anymore.
"Most of us, like myself, either have some knee issues or foot issues or whatever," explains Jerry Guilebbe, the city's Director of Veterans' Services. "Just getting down the street to march" can be difficult if not impossible, he says.
Innocenti agrees. "We try and try," he says. "When we were younger we used to march everywhere, but we can't do it anymore."
As for younger veterans - like the men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan - they are often too busy to take part.
"I've found just talking with them," explains Guilebbe , "they're emergency medical technicians, firefighters, police. They're first responders, so traditionally that's their day to work so it's hard to get them to come out and actually participate."
In years past, numbers have fallen so low that for 2013, organizers decided to just have everyone meet here at Odell Park for a ceremony.
It'll be a proper gathering, it just won't be a parade.
"It's very disappointing to me; I think it's a shame," says Robert Driscoll, a local veteran who served in Korea. "Hopefully maybe next year we can change that."
Do parades and monuments to our war dead belong in a different era? Are we such skin flints that we can't maintain what our ancestors so lovingly created as a rememberance for the fallen?
What a nation does with its history says a lot about its character. We are failing the test of carrying on our traditions and honoring our past and those who lived it by refusing to keep these things close to our hearts. The immediacy shouldn't matter. Respect should.
That's the bottom line and unless we can convince the generation that is growing into adulthood that maintaining history is vital to their future as Americans, something important will be lost and the nation will have made a powerful statement about its feelings toward its past.