The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers are fighting an extremist ideology while helping to build needed infrastructure and government institutions, give Veterans Day special urgency. The nation is encountering new types of warfare and its consequences — a tragic reminder of which came last week at Fort Hood — wondering about old enemies and, appropriately, recalling with new respect the veterans of wars past and present. All of this gives the origins of Veterans Day new significance in 2009.
Congress voted for Armistice Day as a legal holiday in 1938, 20 years after the first armistice ended the carnage of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. Although the first world war was originally called the “war to end all wars,” by the late 1930s few believed that hope could still be kept alive. Storm clouds were building in Europe, and on Sept. 1, 1939, World War II began when Hitler’s troops invaded Poland.
In 1953 the people of Emporia, Kan., began calling the holiday Veterans Day as a tribute to the veterans of their town. Soon afterward, Congress passed a bill introduced by a Kansas congressman renaming the national holiday Veterans Day. The name will remain as long as there are caring people to remember its significance every Nov. 11.
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is set aside each year in solemn remembrance of the first Armistice Day, when the world rejoiced and celebrated after four years of unspeakable horror, and to remember the sacrifices men and women made in order to ensure a peace that would last for many years.
Over the years the way Americans celebrated Veterans Day shifted from solely honoring the dead to honoring veterans of all wars. Especially after the nation’s long involvement in the Vietnam War, the holiday’s emphasis was broadened to include not only parades and patriotic orations in village squares but also gatherings at major landmarks such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, where people walk silently along the wall, placing gifts and standing in quiet vigil. Often their hands fall over the name of a Smith, a Jones, a Rodriguez or an O’Reilly, names of those who made the supreme sacrifice in an unpopular war never declared by Congress.
Support groups organized by veterans of military service, including the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, work tirelessly each November to raise money for their charitable activities by selling paper poppies crafted by disabled veterans. Although a more frequent sight in past years than today, the imitation bright red wildflower is still seen tucked into lapels as a symbol of World War I and its countless bloody battles. They are memorialized in a John McCrae poem, written after a 1915 battle in Europe. Its opening line reads, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.”
As Americans remember their military veterans — those who served in times of war and peace — it should be with some degree of shame at how poorly the nation has cared for its aging warriors and those who recently returned from combat zones.
The Veterans Affairs health care system will be stressed in coming years as baby boomer vets approach senior citizen age. And the needs of veterans of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are continuing to be felt. Those needs must never again be met with substandard conditions like those revealed at Walter Reed and other military medical facilities. The unacceptably high rate of suicides in returning soldiers and the yet to be fully understood massacre at Fort Hood by an Army psychiatrist who was of Muslim heritage remind us that much more must be done to help these men and women cope with the mental strains of their service.
Early diagnosis and treatment — a principle that yields results in all sectors of health care — ought to be the goal of care for veterans as well, especially for those bearing the psychological wounds of war, because it will ultimately save the public money and because it is the right thing to do.
This Veterans Day, please take a few minutes to thank a member of your own family who served or is serving this country. Their courage and dedication ensures the freedom many take for granted. Finally, remember veterans in your prayers. Remember that America’s veterans are common Americans of uncommon valor and devotion to duty. This day belongs to these gallant Americans.