It was 99 years ago today that the United States first observed a holiday for American veterans. On that day in 1921, the first “unknown” soldier, who died in World War I, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the day having been picked to commemorate the armistice that three years before had ended the fighting in that war — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
Eventually, the holiday was formalized as Armistice Day and then, in 1954, evolved into Veterans Day to honor all who have served the country in uniform as well as World War I veterans. Though the November date has its obvious significance in hearkening back to the cessation of World War I, coming as close as it does on the heels of election day, it also serves as a reminder of the many privileges and freedoms this nation enjoys because of the selfless service and sacrifice of so many over the years. As the country now emerges from a bruising election cycle, we should all take a moment to appreciate our right to speak, pray and vote as we wish and then to thank them for defending and preserving it over the years.
But there’s even more this grateful nation should do. When he signed the bill proclaiming Nov. 11 as Veterans Day in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower called on all Americans everywhere to rededicate themselves to the cause of peace. As we have noted on this holiday in years past, since the annual observance first began almost a century ago to mark the end of the then-called “war to end all wars,” American troops have repeatedly been summoned to perform perilous duty. There has been only one other declared war. But, to this day in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, Americans in uniform have risked, and at times lost, their lives to support the country’s foreign-policy objectives as defined by its elected leaders.
Nor have veterans’ sacrifices been limited to the time they spent in conflict. In the 1950s, soldiers were subjected to radiation from atomic-bomb tests, exposures with consequences that are still not fully documented. Some vets experienced emotional trauma from wartime experiences and too many have fallen victim to mental health and substance abuse problems because of it. Some are suffering from puzzling and controversial medical phenomena and ongoing physical disability. Most recently, it was revealed the Veterans Administration, the Cabinet-level agency responsible for caring for our veterans, has been in such disarray that many were waiting months for routine care, some of them dying before being treated. Clearly, this country still owes much to its tens of millions of living veterans.
So as we express gratitude to all veterans past and present, we must also act on the call President Eisenhower issued on that first Veterans Day and — quietly, citizen by citizen — bestow on them a living memorial. Events of the past several years underscore the fact that we must continue to rely on the patriotism and selflessness of our men and women in uniform. The recognition of our debt to them will quite properly be much in evidence today. But let us also resolve, to the best of our ability, to set our self-governing country on a course that decreases the likelihood similar sacrifices will be necessary tomorrow.