Once a Year we Honor our Veterans on Veterans Day
On November 11 of every year, America honors its military veterans, with Veterans Day. While the holiday has gone through many transitions over the years, it has always been a day when Americans reflect on the hardships, trials, and victories that military veterans have overcome in the name of freedom.
With the original name of “Armistice Day,” on November 12, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson sought to honor returning World War I veterans. It was on this historic day that Wilson argued for his 14 Points of Peace, a plan to prevent another World War. Many scholars argue that had the 14 Points been followed, there might never have been a World War II. It comes as no surprise that this holiday was of particular importance to Wilson himself, who would, for the rest of his life, invite guests over for lavish events at his house after he left the White House.
In 1926, the date was changed to November 11, where it would remain until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act came into effect in 1971, only to be moved back to its original date of Nov. 12, 7 years later. The name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after a World War II veteran wrote him a letter, complaining that the holiday should represent all veterans. The President, himself having been a general in WWII agreed.
The various changes in the date created some initial confusion in at least 24 states, and it would take almost a decade for most of them to make the change. Mississippi and South Dakota never changed. On paper, their Veterans Day is still the last Monday of October, though in practice, even there, most observe it the same day as everyone else in the country.
Veterans Day brings with it a variety of fun activities, including parades, barbecues, and fireworks. However, there is a solemnity to the holiday, known particularly to veterans of foreign wars. Each veteran thinks back on those who did not survive, and counts himself supremely fortunate to have been among those that did.
Like many patriotic holidays, (Memorial Day, and July 4) church services have also played a historically important part of many celebrations. Usually at these, patriotic hymns will be sung, as worshipers contemplate God’s grace towards America.
The last 35 years or so may have been the most peaceful in American history, which has caused veterans organizations a challenge in keeping Veterans Day relevant. To add to this, Vietnam veterans have, until recently, struggled with how to celebrate Veterans Day. As more time has passed however, many Vietnam veterans have come to be among the holiday’s most ardent supporters, as many have come to realize that their sacrifices are honored on that day as well.
Sensing a concern that the meaning of Veterans Day (and Memorial Day as well) may have been lost on younger generations, numerous veterans groups have encouraged schools to make it a more important part of their curriculum, particularly in the younger grades.
Since Veterans Day’s initiation in America, other countries have adopted a similar holiday, in most countries also on the same date. In Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Veterans Day is known as “Remembrance Day.” Commemorating the moment when World War I ended, at 11:00 AM, on November 11, on this day, it is a tradition to wear a wreath of poppies, in memory of those who have died in wars. Some, in recent years, have narrowed the requirement to just one poppy. This is significant, because it was a flower grown in many battlefields across Europe during the war. Needless to say also, this Veterans Day celebration has a bit more solemnity to it than its American counterpart.
Over the years, several songs have also been written in Veterans Day’s honor. For example, “Oh Veterans,” “Veterans Day,” and “Veterans We Honor You.” Of course the most commonly heard songs on that day are the more familiar patriotic standard bearers, such as the National Anthem, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “God Bless America,” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” It is not uncommon for veterans, grateful to have served a country with so much liberty, to tear up with joy as they are singing, or saying the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
A number of poets have also written in honor of Veterans Day. John Gillespie Magee wrote the most famous of these, “High Flight.” The poem expounds upon the ethereal feeling that British soldiers got, as they flew over the Atlantic, between Britain and Canada. This Veterans Day poem was also quoted by President Ronald Reagan, as he expressed the nation’s sorrow over the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1982.
Another famous poem written for Veterans Day was “Eulogy for a Veteran.” Capturing the sentiment of the old expression, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” this poem speaks from the standpoint of a veteran now deceased. He explains that he is not really dead, but flies above the wind now, hovering above the earth in an eternal soar.
Central to Veterans Day has always been the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” This grave site, in Arlington National Cemetery, holds a few bones from a soldier who served in World War I, but could not be identified. Each year, on Veterans Day, services are conducted at the tomb at 11:00 AM, on November 11, as “Taps,” is played by the Marine Corps Band. In attendance every year are representatives from the American Legion, American Veterans Committee, the National Tribune, and many other veterans’ organizations.
Veterans Day, especially for the veterans themselves, has always aroused feelings of deep seated gratitude to be in a country where they may live freely. Many combat veterans also take gratitude in being alive. After putting themselves in front of danger, they can be proud that they lived to tell the tale. Perhaps then, they hope, on Veterans Day they can instill in their children a love for America as well, and an appreciation of the blood, sweat, and tears sacrificed in order to preserve it.