U.S. troops used to return from foreign wars to ticker-tape parades and joyous celebrations. That’s how it was in November 1918, when much of the world cheered the end of World War I. One year later, on Nov. 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation celebrating Armistice Day, which in 1938 became a legal holiday.
Now, 102 years after the end of the “war to end all wars,” ticker-tape parades are generally reserved for sports championships, when a city celebrates winning a Super Bowl, Stanley Cup or other title.
On this Veterans Day, even the more modest parades usually held to salute our former troops will be sidelined due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, our veterans deserve more than a free meal at a national restaurant chain or a few obligatory “thank you for your service” greetings as they walk down the street.
Having an all-volunteer military means that fewer families have a personal connection to military service compared to previous decades in the 20th century. It is all too easy to ignore the sacrifices that our service men and women make in enlisting to defend our country.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are 325,500 living Americans who served in World War II. From the Korean War, there are approximately 2.25 million surviving U.S. veterans, according to the National Veterans Foundation.
Some 774,000 U.S. veterans who served in Vietnam are alive, then there are new generations of former troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Not every service member fought in a war, of course. U.S. troops tackle many tasks, from providing security assistance to other nations, to helping our allies build infrastructure, to defending our country by air, sea and land.
Some veterans march in uniform in years when we have parades, or perhaps gather in American Legion halls or with other organizations, but a great many former troops blend into society unnoticed, as doctors, lawyers, members of law enforcement, engineers, teachers, or mothers and fathers.
Those of us who have not served, but who work hard to make a living for ourselves and a better future for our children, owe a special debt of gratitude to veterans, many of whom deferred their own career dreams in order to answer a higher calling.
The original Armistice Day was a celebration of peace, not of war. That spirit was lost during the Vietnam War, when most returning veterans were denied their proper due as many Americans unfairly associated the troops with the unpopular war they had been called to fight.
These days, returning troops are not spit upon or disparaged, but are too often ignored, save for the family members who welcome them home or the occasional shout-out they may receive on the Jumbotron at a sports event.
Veterans Day is a good time to seek out a neighbor who served and spend time with him or her, learning about their life and what putting on the uniform has meant.
Covid-19 considerations will mean having those conversations remotely, or from a safe distance with masks on. There might even be a former soldier or Marine in your own household whose service is seldom discussed or sufficiently praised.
Any genuine interaction we have with a veteran will make the day more meaningful than shopping early Black Friday sales or watching another Netflix rerun.
President John F. Kennedy, in Veterans Day remarks in the 1960s, reminded Americans that showing appreciation to those who served is something we can do year-round.
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them,” Kennedy said.
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