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These days Memorial Day weekend has become inextricably associated with furniture sales and piles of grilled meats. MainStreet has nothing against either of these—in fact we tend to be supporters of both. Nevertheless, given that we’ve got two wars going on and in the past decade thousands of American soldiers and sailors have died in the line of duty, we think it appropriate that this Memorial Day we move beyond the barbecues and shopping extravaganzas, and take some time to do something nice for military families. There are plenty of options and most of them won’t cost you anything but time.

A good starting point for anything, whether you want to make a donation or organize a welcome home event for returning soldiers, is the volunteer section of the Department of Veterans Affairs, but here are a few options we think are worth a second look.

Go to the V.A. hospital. Let’s be honest. Visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital may be tough for many people. People who aren’t sick generally don’t like spending time in the hospital, and V.A. hospitals in particular can be pretty intense places. You are going to be confronted with the reality of war in ways that you’re probably pretty unaccustomed to. You may meet soldiers who have lost limbs, have been disfigured by burns, or are suffering from severe depression. But if you want to do something that really demonstrates that you care about people in the service, visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital is one of the best things you can do.  Start by finding the facility nearest you with this locator map, and contact that hospital directly to find out how to volunteer.

Honor the ultimate sacrifice. Helping out in some form at a veterans cemetery is another way to do your part in a substantial way.   Contact the cemetery directly to ask what they might need, but know that many cemeteries do not organize their volunteer groups themselves, even if they benefit greatly from them.  Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Annville, Pa., for example, has several groups which coordinate Memorial and Veteran’s Day events, perform military honors and install flags in the cemetery.   But since the cemeteries don’t solicit or assemble the groups themselves, you should check in with local groups. Boy and Girl Scouts and their parents, for example, put flags on graves last Saturday at the veterans cemetery in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. And in many smaller cemeteries, veterans' groups like the American Legion take care of the graves of veterans.

Give blood. The armed forces are constantly in need of blood, which has a shelf life of just 21 to 42 days. For more information, including donation locations near your home, contact your local blood center or the American Red Cross at 800-GIVE-LIFE (800-448-3543). You can also check with the Armed Services Blood Program. Platelet donation, which takes a bit longer but does not involve giving up a pint of your own blood, is a significant need too.

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Letters and care packages. If you’re most interested in helping a soldier in the field, there are lots of ways to hook them up. Check out for info on how to get soldiers things they want and need.  A letter, they say, is the best thing to send, but cigars are options too.  Beanie Babies are also apparently a hit too, because the soldiers can dole them out to local children. (Also check out our recent story about Operation Homefront, which provides financial help to military families.)

Parade participation. You can volunteer at the National Memorial Day Parade, which runs down Constitution Avenue and past the White House.  If you're looking for something a little closer to home, be sure to attend a local parade and show your appreciation for local servicemen and servicewomen. Stand on your downtown sidewalk and clap or salute.

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