The war in Afghanistan and the soon-to-be ended war in Iraq are bookends that contain our thoughts on this Veterans Day.
In Afghanistan, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers are facing a fringe group intent on killing them. That war remains hot, and our troops there remain in harm’s way.
In Iraq, the war and occupation are winding down, with most troops scheduled to be home by Christmas. Whether you agreed with their mission or not, they have succeeded in subduing the forces loyal to a tyrannical dictator and have helped rebuild infrastructure and government institutions.
For those in Afghanistan, we hope for safe return. For those leaving and those who already have left Iraq, we hope for recovery; recovery from wounds, from time away from family, from the scars of witnessing the horrors of war. These veterans return to a nation suffering from 9 percent unemployment and a grim outlook on its economic and political future. Their re-entry will not be easy.
We also think about veterans of the wars of the last century. The casualties in those conflicts are staggering to consider, weighed against the death toll in the two current wars. All of this gives the origins of Veterans Day new significance in 2011.
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 originally was 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 officially 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 Administration health care system will be stressed in coming years as baby boomer vets become senior citizens. And the needs of veterans of the 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 increasingly visible scars known as post-traumatic stress disorder 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 ultimately will save the public money and 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.