Veterans Day evokes complex and contradictory emotions, mixing pride and a spirit of celebration with deep sadness and a sense of frustration. Maybe Canada and the commonwealth countries have it right. They call the 11th of November Remembrance Day, a name that involves all citizens in a solemn exercise. Let us all remember the history and significance of the day we set aside to honor the sacrifices and courage to which this free and vibrant country owes its very existence.
The observance of a tribute to American veterans dates only to 1921, when the first unknown soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. A similar ceremony was observed in England in 1919. Nov. 11 was chosen to commemorate the official ending of World War I hostilities, which had taken place at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The observance was named Armistice Day by Congress in 1926, but it did not become a national holiday until 1938.
In 1954, almost a decade after the end of another world war, the holiday’s name was changed to Veterans Day, to extend its significance to all who had served in uniform. And from 1971 to 1977, Congress moved Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October, in a misguided effort to create an annual day off. In 1978, the observance was shifted back to Nov. 11, in recognition of its special historical and emotional significance.
It has been 101 years since the fighting ended in what was called “the war to end all wars.” And during that time American troops have repeatedly been called upon to perform perilous duty. There has been only one other declared war. But, to this day in Afghanistan and Iraq, 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 experience emotional trauma from wartime experiences. Some are suffering from puzzling and controversial medical phenomena. 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.
There is, however, one benefit the country could bestow upon its veterans — quietly, citizen by citizen. Think of it as 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 will 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.