Growing up in Military City USA, Memorial Day and honoring those who gave their lives in service to our country has always meant a great deal to me, even before I first put on my Air Force uniform. This Memorial Day, I’m thinking of what American heroes have sacrificed to serve our nation and defend our freedoms. And, I’m thinking about the sacrifices made by the heroes here at home serving on the frontlines of this pandemic — the nurses, grocery store employees, bus and truck drivers, janitorial staff and more who are working tirelessly to keep us safe and healthy.

These folks never swore a formal oath, but their actions exemplify the same values that I swore to protect when I served in Iraq. Essential workers are risking their lives every day – now it’s time that we adequately recognize them. That means more than just words. Nurses are being denied workplace compensation claims, because they can’t “prove” they contracted COVID-19 on the job. Our state is rolling back child care support that essential workers rely on. Hundreds of thousands of essential workers who are DACA recipients are still living with the threat of deportation. 

We need to honor our essential workers by demanding that our political leaders rise above their political agendas and do right by our neighborhood heroes. That means passing legislation to ensure our essential workers have the resources they need – including access to personal protective equipment, paid sick and family leave, hazard pay, and more. At a time when our politics seems defined by division, partisanship, and self-promotion, we are living through a public health and economic crisis that demands servant leadership in government. Too many elected officials have been silent in the face of federal incompetence, and that silence — that complicity — has needlessly cost us tens of thousands of American lives.

In the Air Force, we learned our core values on day one — integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do — and that those values should guide how you lead. That’s why when we served, it never mattered what any of us looked like, where we were from, or how much money our parents made. Rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and native-born, we were all in it together, dedicated to the same mission, and mindful that victory would only come as one team. When someone did make that ultimate sacrifice, it served as a reminder of what we owe each other: to uphold those values to ensure they didn’t die in vain. 

Now we as a nation need to make sure that those who have died in service of others during this pandemic are honored, too. We may never know all of their names. We may never know just how many lives they saved. But, we know they rushed to the frontlines of this pandemic to ensure the rest of us were safe and healthy, and many paid the ultimate sacrifice in the course of that selfless service. On this Memorial Day, as I think about those who died to protect our freedoms, I am equally thankful today for those who are willing to risk it all for us, no matter what uniform they wear.

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Gina Ortiz Jones

Gina Ortiz Jones is an Air Force and Iraq War veteran, San Antonio native, and first-generation American running to fight for quality, affordable health care, a level playing field so hardworking Texans...