Of Veterans and Veterans Day

Military color guard honoring veterans in a Veterans Day Ceremony.
-USAF Photo by Josh Plueger

Veterans Day is the day the United States recognizes all its military veterans. Many people often wonder what the difference is between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. That probably is the fault of Veterans. Memorial Day is the day we remember service members who died in our nation’s conflicts. It originated from any of a number of communities who claim to have created the holiday to commemorate those who died during the American Civil War in the years after that conflict. Traditionally it was celebrated on May 30th. While many communities still celebrate Memorial Day on the 30th, the recognized federal holiday is the last Monday in May. As the name suggests, Memorial Day is about remembering those who died serving our nation.

The Soldiers depicted in the National Korean War Memorial serve as silent sentinels reminding everyone about the service and sacrifice of military veterans. The Korean War is often called the forgotten war because it was limited to Korean territory. Sandwiched between the large mobilization of WWII and the turmoil created by the long war in Vietnam, these veterans are often neglected by the public and history.
-Photo by the author.

Veterans Day is a more recent holiday devoted to recognizing all military veterans regardless of time of service, whether they served during wartime or in peace, from all branches, and is dedicated to living veterans and those who have died whether during conflict. This last part is where the confusion rests. Most military veterans do not consider themselves heroes. Some are happy to regal others with their feats of daring in peace and war. Some not so much. In most cases, military veterans claim the real heroes who died in battles long ago or more recently. Every service member signs a check when they sign their enlistment papers payable to the people of the United States for everything up to and including their very lives. Only a small fraction of service members are asked to cash those checks at that level. Almost all military members sacrifice something of value during their time of service. For some it results in broken relationships. For others the sacrifice is missing important family events. Many suffer some sort of injury, even in peacetime, that follows them through the rest of their lives. Training for war is dangerous and does sometimes results in loss of life in spite of strong risk reduction measures taken by leaders. That is why one day each year we honor those who voluntarily and involuntarily served our nation’s military.

Veterans Day was not an official US holiday until 1954. There was a holiday before 1954 that recognized the service, accomplishments, and sacrifice of the veterans of “The Great War”, what we now call World War One. It was celebrated on November 11th because that is the anniversary of the day the shooting stopped based on a cease fire agreement between the Allies and the German Empire. Veterans Day ceremonies begin in many communities at 11:00 AM because that as the hour appointed for all shooting and maneuver by both sides to stop.

By 1954, the world had engaged in another great conflict which made the war waged between 1914 and 1918 look like a long battle. There was pressure to recognize the contributions of the veterans of the Second World War, the conflict in Korea, and those still serving. It was becoming increasingly apparent that not only was WWI not the war to end all wars but neither was WWII. Since that time, the United States has engaged in military conflicts and operations in Vietnam, Kuwait, Panama, Haiti, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and others.

Veterans from Vietnam were vilified by the American public as the symbols of the government action in Southeast Asia to which they objected. Many service members who fought in that conflict were conscripted. They honored their duty as a citizen and reported when called recognizing one does not always have the luxury of choosing which conflict to fight. In more recently, Americans have changed their opinions about Vietnam Veteran but the scars remain from those emotional wounds inflicted by their countrymen decades ago.
-Photo by the author

Today, military veterans enjoy a great deal of prestige. That has not always been the case in our nation’s history. Many Soldiers and Sailors who served during the War of Independence never received pay they were promised when they signed up with either their State militias or as regulars in the Continental Army. Additionally, the Continental Congress authorized pensions for Soldiers from our first war. However, the promise was not readily fulfilled. Many veterans lacked documented proof of their service. In many cases, because Soldiers served with militias their States, not the national government, the newly formed States were responsible for their pay and any benefits. In the postwar — pre-constitution period there were many citizens who believed those veterans were trying to scam the government to give them something they neither earned nor deserved. Those who were paid received cash notes that were virtually worthless allowing those veterans to only purchase goods at extreme exchange rates from the face value. Their cash was nearly worthless.

After the Great War, many WWI veterans fell into poverty. Homeless they took up residence in abandoned buildings in our nation’s capital and in many of the parks around the city. Soldiers, under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur attacked the unarmed veterans with swords and tear gas killing one and injuring 69. Soldiers returning from Vietnam were discouraged from wearing their uniforms when returning to the States. It was common for service members to be spat upon or assaulted by members of the peace movement.

America has a long love/hate history with those who protect her. Veterans Day is the one day the nation thanks and acknowledges the suffering, sacrifice, and selfless service of those veterans who defend liberty 24/7/365 for the last 245 years (I realize the Declaration of Independence was signed 244 years ago but the U.S. Army was established by Congress in 1775, a little more than 12 months earlier). That service continues today. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coasties are standing guard all over the world today protecting liberty, training hard, and fighting our nation’s enemies. When you next thank a vet ask them why they serve. Remember, less than one percent of our population protects the United States. Take a few minutes this Veterans Day to attend a local ceremony and chat with a Vet.

Most service members spend more time engaged in training and other peace-time duties than they do engaged in combat. Even in combat zones, most service members are engaged is maintenance, training, and support activities. Only a fraction of the total force is tasked to close with and engage our nation’s enemies in close combat. However, every service member deployed in a combat zone, stationed in a foreign land, or at sea is in jeopardy.
-Photo by New Hampshire National Guard-195th Regiment in which the author later served as the Command Sergeant Major.

References

Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.) History of veterans day. https://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp. Retrieved 11/10/20

Llewellyn, J. & Thompson, S. (Feb 21, 2015) Shay’s rebellion. Alpha History.https://alphahistory.com/americanrevolution/shays-rebellion/. Retrieved 11/10/20

McArdle, T. (Jul 28, 2017) The veterans were desperate. Gen. McArthur ordered U.S. troops to attack them. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/07/28/the-veterans-were-desperate-gen-macarthur-ordered-u-s-troops-to-attack-them/ Retrieved 11/10/20

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