The Meaning of Veteran’s Day

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Veteran memorial

In less than 11 seconds and in 11 words or fewer, can you recite what occurred on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918?

The answer: an Armistice – the temporary cessation of hostilities – was declared in WWI, thus ending combat between the Allied Nations and Germany in WWI.  And with this armistice came the promise that this “Great War” was to be the war to end all wars.

The actual treaty for peace was called the Treaty of Versailles, and was signed June 28, 1919.  However, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed 11/11/11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day.

On Nov. 11, 1921, an unidentified soldier (The “Unknown Soldier”) killed in that Great War was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.  Subsequently, Congress had declared the day a national holiday in honor of all who had participated in that war.  Simultaneously, unidentified soldiers from England, and France, were laid to rest at Westminster Abbey and Arc de Triomphe.

Armistice Day became Veterans’ Day in 1954, when Congress voted to replace the word “Armistice” with “Veterans;” then on June 1, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed that legislation. From then on, Nov. 11 became the day to honor all veterans of all wars.


War is Numbers

Beyond the pain, war is numbers: numbers of planes, ships, tanks, gallons, tonnages, bullets, food and all things combat and support – plus the aggregate of those who served bravely, died, and/or came home wounded and broken.

Since the American Revolution, which began April 19, 1775, there have been more than 43 million veterans. Military deaths total nearly 2.7 million. Even historians might have trouble identifying some of our smaller wars, such as the 1st and 3rd Seminole Wars (36 and 26 killed); Operation Proud Conflict (19 killed); and Bosnia (12 killed).  The American Civil War was America’s costliest in terms of lives: 683,000 killed on both sides.

The headstone of a fallen veteran
The headstone of a fallen veteran

Despite the horrific sacrifices, war is also about the preservation of human life, our way of life and the values that have made America the first nation among all nations in the history of the world.

As a 17-year-old in 1959, I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard – a  long-ago “voyage” that helped form who I am today.

Incomprehensibly to most, I actually loved that service: its history; the calms as well as the oft-times tumultuous seas; our safety-at-sea and life-saving tasks, and my friends.

Still, there was no “real” appreciation for Veterans’ Day until as a reporter for UPI in San Francisco, in 1966, I had to interview the wife of the first U.S. pilot shot down over Hanoi, during our initial bombing campaign there.

For the first time, I realized what “sacrifice” truly meant by our warriors and their families.   Subsequent conflict-related interviews crystalized my belief that Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day are the true American holidays.

Anyone who has served, under fire or not, understands the depth of those days.


Local Military Veterans Remember

Gary Heald, Sgt., U.S. Army Rangers, Viet Nam: “Veterans’ Day reminds me of the unusual friendships that formed when I was in Viet Nam, some of which I still have today.  Many of those friends were with guys I probably never would’ve had contact with. I suffered hearing loss from my battle experiences. Despite the criticisms of the Veterans’ Administration (VA), they’ve been very good to me. Recently I visited the WWI museum in Kansas City – the finest of its kind in the world.  That deeply reminded me of Veterans’ Day.”

Maury Freidson, Airman, Air National Guard, Viet Nam era: “The biggest take-away from my eight-year-long Reserve experience was the pride of being a member of our armed forces.”

Peter VanRooy, Pvt., U.S. Army, Viet Nam: “Veterans’ Day means more frequent e-mails from the guys who trudged the rice paddies and jungles of Viet Nam in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Our little group from one infantry company relives our experiences in different ways, but often. For us, Veterans’ Day is every day. We try to make a special effort to remember our buddies who didn’t make it back, and those we never knew who shared the war experience. The memories of those months are proud, constant and vivid. You never forget the guy on the ground, dying, while waiting for a chopper.

“We weren’t much loved when we came home in those days. Yet, all of my buddies are so thankful today that our nation is honoring the recent vet in the way that they earned. Veteran’s Day is special to all of us – just as every day is, because we just can’t forget.”

Richard (Dick) Grabow, Col., U.S. Army (ret.): “Throughout my youth, Nov. 11 was always known as Armistice Day, a time to recognize and honor those military personnel who served and died during WWI. During my own military career (five years active, 25 years Reserves), I still maintained that mindset throughout the years. However, after I retired from military service, the true meaning of Veterans’ Day became clearer to me. I realized that it was a day to recognize all military personnel, regardless of duties performed during their service. Every veteran can now truly appreciate the honor implied when a stranger comes up and says, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Once I recognized the true meaning of that day, I wanted to become more involved in veterans’ activities, so one year ago I joined the Freedom Committee of Orange County, a group of more than 100 veterans that meet in schools, and expose interested students to military life and the influence of wars on history and of this great nation.”

Roger Otte, Air National Guard, Communications Specialist: “At the time of my military service in the 60s, the term ‘Veteran’ didn’t figure much into my thinking. As I have aged, that term has risen in my mind to a far greater level, and I proudly pay attention to, and contribute financially to the needs of veterans. Veterans’ Day celebrations poignantly direct our attention to their needs. I have seen our society as a whole responding increasingly to our veterans through such entities as the ‘Wounded Warrior Project’ and in the growth of comfort facilities as provided by the USO. In fact, I just volunteered for USO service at John Wayne Airport’s new facility that opened this Nov. 1. Veterans’ Day has sensitized me; and I’m excited to fulfill my new role serving our military.”

John Lautsch, Lt., U.S. Navy, Viet Nam: “Veterans’ Day means to me pleasant memories of flying with a group of great guys. I was a draftee headed for the Army, but volunteered for the Navy, then flew in Viet Nam. I was luckier than many. I received my commission in Newport, RI, and from there took flight training in Pensacola, FL and San Diego. Our squadron was stationed in Hawaii, which was great duty! We had no casualties while flying missions in Viet Nam, although our planes were shot at. We patrolled the coast of Viet Nam from Hanoi, to Cam Ranh Bay, so our time was usually spent looking down rather than slogging through its jungles.  I made lifelong friends while in the Navy. Our squadron has a reunion every two years, which we all strive to attend. Some of my buddies and skippers have fallen to old age, but most are still with us.”

Judy Olson, Flight Attendant, Military Air Command, Viet Nam: “At a young age, I was given the honor as a commercial flight attendant to fly troops in and out of Viet Nam. My heart sank every time I said “Good bye” or “Hello” to one of my passengers. Today, I feel more removed from the plight of military personnel/veterans, but they are still in my heart and prayers, and I still feel deeply every time I see a person in a military uniform – especially the physically and emotionally wounded. All Americans should be grateful for their service and consider helping these special individuals and their family members in any way they feel comfortable doing.   Veterans’ Day is the most significant holiday.”

Contact the writer at [email protected].

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