It isn’t much work to recall the smell of that morning, that particular combination of old paint, overheated air, and slightly damp synthetic fabrics that permeated very classroom in my Fairfax County, VA middle school on Fall mornings in the 1980s.
We didn’t have Veterans Day off as a school holiday. It was too close to Thanksgiving break probably. Keeping us in school was also a way for local school systems to give our federally and Fed-adjacent employed parents a day off free of children.
I remember that day because it was one of the earliest times I’d paid attention to what Veterans Day means. Most likely because we were discussing it in Social Studies or History, which is the class I had at the time we took our 11 minutes of silence.
Eleven minutes where an entire middle school paused. Didn’t talk. Didn’t move. Just sat quietly as a group to honor the sacrifices made by our military veterans on our behalf.
Even as America spent the last 20 years becoming more jingoistic than ever, the meaning of Veterans Day has slipped away.
The Veterans Administration tells us that Woodrow Wilson declared in 1919 the first commemoration of the ceasefire between the Allied nations and Germany “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” the previous year. This ceasefire is widely regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”
Wilson said “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”
It took the U.S. Congress another seven years to to officially recognize the end of World War I. In June 1926 Congress passed a concurrent resolution that recognized that 27 U.S. states had already declared November 11th as a legal holiday and called upon all people in the U.S. to “observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.”
It wasn’t until 1938 that “Armistice Day” became a Federal holiday in the U.S. and in that same year Dwight Eisenhower issued the first “Veterans Day Proclamation (pdf).”
It’s only taken 100 or so years for us to lose sight of the horror that World War I brought.
According to multiple sources, the last potential witness to direct combat during World War I was Frank Buckles, an American man who died in 2011 at the age of 110. Buckles, by the way, also had the unfortunate luck of being taken by the Japanese as a civilian prisoner in the Philippines during World War II.
The last known veteran of World War I, a British woman named Florence Green who died in 2012 at 110 years-old.
My friend Joe, whom I would have dubbed least likely to join the military even out of the creche of conservative, military studded Northern Virginia in the 1980s, served 8 years in the U.S. Navy.
Twice a year he gets on social media and reminds people that Memorial Day is a solemn day to remember those veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country while Veterans Day is a time to honor and celebrate those veterans who are still with us.
In the last 20 years, we have distorted what today is supposed to be about.
In typical human fashion, made even more typical by our American lack of attention to detail and our inability to see the fabric of things as they relate to each other, not only have we lost that today is meant to remind us of the horror of The Great War and to honor the effort and selflessness of those who fought int it we have expanded the meaning of today to include first responders – doctors, nurses, teachers, EMTs, firefighters.
And while those folks rightly deserve our thanks and even our praise, maybe a better way to do it would be to get them the supplies they need, pay them a living wage, and ensure they have the health care everyone deserves.
Veterans Day should remind us of the horrors of war. I say this on the vague, slight chance that maybe we’ll learn from past mistakes and not do war again. I say this knowing full well that Veterans Day 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the Gulf War, the first war my age cohort was old enough to fight in. The first war that claimed at least a couple of my high school classmates.
Being in the military has its rewards. And at this point anyone who serves does so voluntarily. I don’t believe most of them do it informed, though, given the amount of mythology around our military, its rituals and customs, and its meaning.
I’m going to leave you with these statistics:
- In 2017, the last year for which we have data, 17 veterans a day committed suicide.1
- In 2019, there were 37,085 veterans in the U.S. without permanent housing.2 That’s 6.5% of the people in the U.S. without permanent housing.3
- Sexual assault in the military is so prevalent doctors have come up with a new term for it, Military Sexual Trauma.4
I will probably pause today around 11am if only for a couple of minutes. If only to remember the folks I know who served.
- “New veteran suicide numbers raise concerns among experts hoping for positive news,” October 9, 2019, Military Times
- “Estimated number of homeless veterans in the United States from 2007 to 2019, by sheltered status”, Statista
- Calcuated percentage based on statistics on homeless veteran population and numbers on general homeless population in Estimated number of homeless people in the United States from 2007 to 2019″, Statista
- Military Sexual Trauma, National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs