There are just two federal holidays each year acknowledging — and thanking — the brave men and women of the U.S. armed forces for their service to our country. They have endured intensive training, harsh conditions and treacherous battlefields on which they have fought for our freedom and protected us from foreign dictators and tyrannical empires overseas.
Memorial Day gives us a chance to remember those we lost. But Veterans Day — which we observe on Friday — honors those who are still with us.
Veterans Day traces its roots back more than 100 years, to the conclusion of World War I. Considered the deadliest and most violent conflict in history to that point, it resulted in nearly 40 million military and civilian casualties.
In the 11th hour of Nov. 11, 1918, a ceasefire accord brought an end to four years of bloodshed. Armistice Day — as it is still known in other parts of the globe — was celebrated in honor of those who fought in the trenches on the Western Front.
Unfortunately, by the time it was acknowledged as an official U.S. holiday in 1938, the world was once again on the brink of a global conflict. World War II’s ferocity far exceeded that of its predecessor, including millions of innocent lives lost in the Holocaust, and culminated with the first — and only — use of the atomic bomb during wartime on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The very first Veterans Day is said to have taken place in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947, when World War II veteran Raymond Weeks organized a celebration to honor all those who served in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the war. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law proclaiming that Armistice Day would henceforth be known as Veterans Day.
Today the holiday celebrates all who have served. But despite government assistance through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and programs like the GI Bill, many veterans continue to struggle to readjust to civilian life, facing the challenges of securing education, employment, food and housing.
While many returned home to celebrations and commendations, Americans became more cynical during and after the war in Vietnam. More and more returning veterans were met with hatred and disgust or, at best, were simply ignored, which posed a new set of hurdles, with many suffering from drug addiction, PTSD, suicidal urges and other mental health issues, as well as the lasting effects of exposure to Agent Orange.
Many of those problems remain prevalent among military personnel coming back from more recent conflicts, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is why Veterans Day is more important than it has ever been. And it necessitates more from us than simply thanking and helping a veteran, though any effort — no matter how small — is appreciated.
Volunteer at a VA hospital. You don’t have to have any medical expertise to help. You can even give a lift to those without the means to get around. Visit www.Volunteer.va.gov to learn more. Volunteer for the American Red Cross, which has been lending a hand to those returning from war since World War I.
Help veterans find work. Hire Heroes USA is a nonprofit organization assisting veterans, active-duty military and their spouses obtain employment with career counseling and advice. Go to www.HireHeroesUSA.org.
Send a letter, or help veterans write home. This is probably the simplest of all ways to show your support. Operation Gratitude — at www.OperationGratitude.com — delivers letters, cards and care packages to veterans and military personnel, letting them know they are appreciated. And Operation Write Home provides blank handmade greeting cards to active-duty service members to send messages back to their loved ones. Visit them at www.SandyAllnock.com/OperationWriteHome.
Give back at the grass-roots level. You can show your support for local veterans in your community by donating to, and volunteering for, the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign War post nearest you.
Veterans deserve our appreciation for protecting and ensuring our cherished way of life. They deserve our thanks not just one day a year, but every day— and on Friday we should be especially united in that gratitude.