I was humbled on Friday, Nov. 11, to speak to our community on Veterans Day, a day set aside to honor the service and sacrifices of those men and women who have served this great nation in the uniformed services. Most who know me and many who read this column know that I cherish the title “veteran” as dearly as Christian, husband, father and American.
Veterans, over the years, have been saddled with a full range of characterizations by friends, foes and even by the citizens of the nation they serve. Hero or baby killer, brave or coward, honorable or sadistic — each comparison seemingly justified based upon the popularity of a given war or the times.
I often recall Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy” concerning British soldiers and veterans written in the latter days of England’s imperial era. Kipling wrote: “For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’ But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.”
Veterans Day, first celebrated on Nov. 11, 1919, as “Armistice Day,” was originally a day set aside to honor veterans who served in the “War to End All Wars.” World War I ended officially with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919; however, hostilities essentially ended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, with the agreement by the combatants to an armistice. In May 1938, Congress declared Armistice Day, Nov. 11 of each year, a national holiday. By 1954, based on suggestions by veterans of World War II and the Korean War, the name of the holiday was changed to Veterans Day to celebrate the service of veterans of all wars.
After a stint between 1971 and 1978, when our federal government mandated through the “Uniform Holiday Act” that the celebration of Veterans Day occur on the fourth Monday of October, the observance has returned generally to the traditional Nov. 11 date (note: if the 11th falls on a Sunday, the observance is moved to the 12th; if the 11th is on a Saturday, the observance is moved to the 10th).
As with Memorial Day, I am profoundly moved each Veterans Day to remember those who have served our nation. Although I never met him, I remember Frank Buckles, the last living veteran of World War I, who passed away this year at the ripe old age of 110. Buckles lied about his age to join the Army and to serve his country, reinforcing to me the spirit of Americans who proudly live in the “home of the brave.”
I remember my father-in-law, a veteran of three wars with tears in his eyes as he toured the newly opened World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. In his youth, he was eager to do his part and, in his dotage, so very proud of his efforts — a sentiment that lingers in the hearts of many veterans.
I recall local veterans like Pete Callas promoting the remembrance of America’s “forgotten war,” the Korean War. If you look at the faces on the statues of the Korean War soldiers in the Korean War Memorial, a must, those faces graphically portray the feelings of veterans who have served in God-forsaken areas doing God-forsaken duty with only a glimmer of knowledge of why they were there. Along with Pete, remember and thank God that American men and women have done this duty and continue to do this duty each day.
My era, where I earned the moniker “veteran” was Vietnam. I remember each day, the 58,186 men and eight women who paid the ultimate price for that simple title. Their names appear on a black granite wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
There have been wars and rumors of war before and since my era, each producing men and women who proudly served this country in the uniformed services. Not all have “ridden to the sound of the cannons,” “heard the bombs bursting in air” or “seen the elephant,” yet all are veterans who have served our nation well.
I’ll close this salute to veterans with a short definition from a recent email I received: “an American Veteran is a man or woman who signed a blank check payable to the citizens of the United States of America for any amount up to and including their life.”
May God bless all living and deceased veterans and continue to bless America.
Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.