Memorial Day and Veterans Day are months away, but Americans aren't waiting until then to honor those who dedicated their lives serving in the U.S. military.
Two inspiring stories emerged this past month -- one in New York City, and another taking shape across the nation to honor more than 1,000 women who were relegated to the proverbial dustbins of history. Both examples show the power of the Internet to elevate the stories of servicemembers and to define what it means to be a hero.
First was Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis, born and raised in Staten Island, who from his earliest days wanted to be a soldier like his father and grandfather. Friends said he "had olive-green blood" -- traditional military colors -- and after graduating as an ROTC student from high school in 2006, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Staff Sgt. Ollis served one tour of duty in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. And in January 2013, he left for his third deployment to Afghanistan.
But he never made it home.
In August 2013, the base where Sgt. Ollis was stationed came under attack from insurgent forces. Sgt. Ollis threw himself in front of a suicide bomber and was killed -- giving his own life to protect a fellow soldier from an ally country.
That could have been the end of the story. But the Internet didn't allow the story of his bravery to go untold.
Inspired by Sgt. Ollis' heroic actions, a fellow Staten Island resident, Anita Salek, started an online petition at Change.org urging the NYC Department of Transportation to honor Sgt. Ollis' life by naming a new Staten Island Ferry boat after him. First a few dozen signed. Then a few hundred. Then over the course of a few months, the petition climbed to more than 5,600 signatures while a corresponding Facebook page hit nearly 3,300 members -- people from all across the country learning about Sgt. Ollis' service to his country, and feeling inspired to keep his memory alive.
A few weeks ago, Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that a future ferry will be named after Sgt. Ollis. "Whatever he did, wherever he went, others were inspired by his leadership and his actions. This was an extraordinary young man and we lost him way too soon," de Blasio said.
Score one for the Internet.
Meanwhile, across the country in California, Tiffany Miller was telling the story of her grandmother, Elaine Danforth Harmon, and more than 1,000 other women like Harmon who did something most World War II history classes gloss over. These women joined the WASP -- Women Airforce Service Pilots -- and spent years during the Second World War supporting the U.S. effort, becoming the first female pilots in the U.S. military.
The WASPs had an enormous impact in the U.S. military. Yet history wasn't so kind to them. They were disbanded at the end of World War II rather than incorporated into the U.S. military, in large part because women weren't considered strong enough to keep up with male pilots during peacetime. For more than 30 years, WASP records were classified, and it wasn't until 1977 when members of the WASP were even considered full-fledged veterans of the military.
It was a decades-long fight to get these women recognized, and yet even with their veteran status, members of the WASP still faced a different set of rules -- including being barred from inurnment or burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Enter Tiffany and the army of supporters she's built over the past month to call attention to the history and importance of the WASPs, cutting through military bureaucracy in her effort to win a right she feels her grandmother and the other women pilots earned.
With her grandmother's ashes stored in her closet, waiting for the day they can be inurned at Arlington, Miller started a Change.org petition calling on Congress to pass legislation to allow members of the WASPs to be laid to rest at the cemetery.
In just a few short weeks, more than 140,000 Americans joined the national call for these women pilots to be honored for their important place in history. That momentum has now spurred bipartisan legislation with a real pathway to victory, even in a divided Congress.
We often see the power of technology when it comes to raising money for a cause or a candidate, or to temporarily kick start a national conversation through a hashtag or clickbait headline.
But what makes the efforts of Anita Salek and Tiffany Miller so refreshing is that they're using technology to build up the stories of American heroes, and to make sure that history doesn't forget the contributions of men and women who gave their lives in service.
For these two women, there's no time like the present to lift up the work of American military heroes. And they're showing that people care about honoring veterans beyond just during two calendar holidays a year.