Virtual tours offer way to pay tribute on Memorial Day

Even if you're booked with other activities, you can honor the holiday by paying a virtual visit to some of the nation's memorials.

Not everyone will spend the Memorial Day weekend consumed solely with backyard barbecues, pool openings, beach parties and can’t-miss, three-day, mind-altering sales.

Plenty of people also will take the time to honor the day’s original purpose: to remember all those who have given their lives in military service to the country.

Some may go to Arlington National Cemetery for its Memorial Day event. A lot of people will visit the National Mall over the weekend for the concert, parade and other events. The annual Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally will honor prisoners of war and those missing in action. Individual branches of the service and many local organizations also will hold observances.

But Memorial Day, created in 1865 as Decoration Day to honor those who died in the Civil War and since expanded to cover all wars, also is a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer. Families have plans. Activities have been scheduled. And you might not be able to get to one of the official Memorial Day events.

In that case, you can still observe the day in other ways, one of them being a virtual tour of one or more of the websites attached to the nation’s war memorials.

The National Park Service’s World War II Memorial website commemorates the war that did so much to shape the modern world, and includes a link to the American Battle Monuments Commission’s World War II Registry, where you can search for names of those who died. But be aware, the commission notes: “We only have the records of those casualties that are buried in our cemeteries or listed on the Walls of the Missing – a total of 176,399 records. There were 405,399 American casualties in World War II.”

Of course, if you want to continue your search for World War II veterans, you could try the National Archives and Records Administration’s Veterans’ Service Records site, which offers a searchable records database and genealogy tools for finding family members.

The Vietnam Memorial is the most interactive of the memorial sites. It lets visitors search the Wall that makes up the monument for the names of those who died and offers an expansive list of other features, including a photo gallery, literary section, Women on the Wall feature and a list of Medal of Honor winners. Visitors can also sign a virtual guest book and leave their comments.

NPS’ Korean War Veterans Memorial site doesn’t offer a virtual experience, though it does offer history and will help you plan a visit.

For servicemen and women who have died in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new application, Map the Fallen, employs present-day tools such as Google Earth to ensure they are not forgotten.

Sean Askay of the Google Earth Outreach team started it as a personal project to “map the 5,700 American and Coalition servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he writes on the site.

The map provides links to personal histories and photos of the fallen, along with memorial websites with comments from friends and family members. Askay has made the project into a collaborative effort, and is soliciting input and corrections to the map from visitors.

If you want to honor those who died in World War I, you could visit the site of the World War I Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., or the National World War I Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.

To go back to the origins of Memorial Day, there are a host of sites that mark the Civil War, from the National Civil War Memorial to NPS sites that commemorate major battles of the war, such as Gettysburg National Military Park,  or the Antietam National Battlefield

This is only a partial list, of course — you can always do a bit of searching on your own, especially if you’re looking for something specific. But the options are there. So even if you’re physically booked up this Memorial Day weekend, you still have a way to remember and thank those who made weekends like this possible.

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