Memorial Day is a time for us to remember and honor those military service men and women we have lost. Since their inception, YMCAs have served to help meet the needs of those in the armed forces, responding with care, imagination and skill.

YMCAs across the United States first entered into service during the Civil War in support of both the North and the South. The association of YMCA’s in the North, the Christian Commission, helped raise troops and were responsible for direction Union relief efforts. The Commission, endorsed by President Abraham Lincoln, oversaw 4,850 volunteers, including poet Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse. Through the Christian Commission, YMCA’s supported hospitals and supplied nurses and aides to tens of thousands of casualties and prisoners of war throughout the hostilities, on both sides of the conflict. YMCAs were also active in distributing tracts and Bibles throughout the Union and the Confederacy. The Chicago Y held devotional services for the soldiers and later helped maintain a home for men in transit, the sick and the wounded. As the war ended, the commitment of YMCA’s to working with soldiers and sailors was solidified and continues to this day through the Armed Services YMCAs.

The Civil War generally devastated YMCA membership in both the North and South. The work of the YMCA during the war, however, made it popular with the troops, and the movement recovered swiftly. In the period between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, YMCA work with the military consisted mainly of providing a regimental writing tent for the men during the summer and holding Bible studies. The outbreak of war with Spain saw a repeat of YMCA efforts during the Civil War. Ys raised military units and followed the flag to the Philippines and Cuba, attending to the needs of servicemen, prisoners of war and noncombatants.

Nearly 26,000 YMCA staff and volunteers performed YMCA work during the first World War, directly helping hundreds of thousands of POWs, and indirectly helping most of the 4 million POWs of that war. With its more than 1,500 canteens and post exchanges, the YMCA fed and entertained more troops during World War I than did any other welfare organization. In all, the YMCA performed more than 90 percent of the welfare work of the time, mostly in the form of running canteens and post exchanges.

World War II saw a continuation of YMCA services for the military and displaced persons. The scale of the YMCA's efforts during WWII is seen not only in its USO work, but also in the number of prisoners of war assisted through YMCA efforts. It is believed that between 1939 and 1945, YMCAs worked with, or supplied the bulk of the financing for working with, some 6 million POWs in more than 36 countries.

That same service and devotion continues today. The YMCA is proud support military service men and women and their families. As we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, we would like to take a moment to honor those we have lost and recognize the sacrifice of the families they have left behind.

Please join us for a tour of the Citrus Memorial Health Foundation YMCA this weekend to see how the YMCA is impacting our local community and learn how membership can help to improve your life. Now through Memorial Day you will pay no join fee – a savings of $50. For more information, please visit ymcasuncoast.org or call 352-500-9622 to speak with a Membership Associate.

Joanna Castle is district vice president of the YMCA of the Suncoast.

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