The observance of a holiday for American veterans dates back to 1921, when the first “unknown” soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The ceremony was held Nov. 11 to commemorate the ending of World War I, which had taken place at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 — 100 years ago today.
First called Armistice Day, the remembrance was observed informally for a while and became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, the holiday’s name was changed to Veterans Day, in honor of all who had served their country in uniform.
From 1971 to 1977, Congress moved Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October, but in 1978, the observance was shifted back to Nov. 11, in recognition of the special significance of that day.
Since that day in 1918, American men and women have been called upon rather frequently to perform perilous duty abroad. There has been only one other declared war, of course, but from the Korean War to the ongoing engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq — not to mention U.S. troops in harm’s way elsewhere — young Americans have regularly been called upon to risk everything to support the national interest, as temporarily defined in Washington.
Despite the public honors they receive, veterans have not always been well-treated by their country when they returned to civilian life. Many Vietnam vets still suffer emotional trauma from the homecoming they received after fighting in an unpopular war that was none of their doing.
Other abuses have taken place while the men and women were still in uniform. Some who fought in Vietnam still deal with the long-term effects of exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange. In the 1950s, soldier-guinea pigs were subjected to radiation from atomic bomb tests. Then, when some developed cancers, they were told their conditions were not related to their military service. In World War II, more than 4,000 soldiers and sailors were deliberately exposed to poison gas, then sworn to secrecy, in an experiment.
And during the 1990s, many veterans of the Persian Gulf War were stricken with mysterious illnesses the government contended weren’t service-related. Several years ago, longstanding issues with the quality of care at the nation’s Veterans Affairs hospitals were highlighted, including those at New Hampshire’s only veterans hospital in Manchester.
Finally, there’s the additional slight of being treated through all these abhorrent circumstances as a political prop, from the candidates who avow their devotion to our veterans to the cynical linking of them to peaceful protests of racial injustice.
It might be fitting to pause on this Veterans Day and remember that, while all the patriotic sacrifice is admirable, some of the political decisions that require it are not. One way to pay tribute to our veterans today would be for all of us to work a little harder to make similar sacrifices unnecessary tomorrow. World War I, which sparked the desire to set aside a day in honor of our veterans, was dubbed “The war to end all wars.”