As leaves fall and the sky darkens earlier each day, the nation will observe Veterans Day this Friday, November 11.
The somber holiday follows an enormously consequential election, which is fitting. We enjoy free elections only because of those who put their lives on the line to defend us from tyranny.
Originally named Armistice Day to mark the end of World War I, the holiday was changed to Veterans Day by Congress in June, 1954.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan gave a memorable Veterans Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery, which included these passages:
“A few moments ago I placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and as I stepped back and stood during the moment of silence that followed, I said a small prayer. And it occurred to me that each of my predecessors has had a similar moment, and I wondered if our prayers weren’t very much the same, if not identical.
“We celebrate Veterans Day on the anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, the armistice that began on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. And I wonder, in fact, if all Americans’ prayers aren’t the same as those I mentioned a moment ago. The timing of this holiday is quite deliberate in terms of historical fact but somehow it always seems quite fitting to me that this day comes deep in autumn when the colors are muted and the days seem to invite contemplation.
“Sometime back I received in the name of our country the bodies of four Marines who had died while on active duty. I said then that there is a special sadness that accompanies the death of a serviceman, for we’re never quite good enough to them — not really; we can’t be, because what they gave us is beyond our powers to repay. And so, when a serviceman dies, it’s a tear in the fabric, a break in the whole, and all we can do is remember.
“It is, in a way, an odd thing to honor those who died in defense of our country, in defense of us, in wars far away. The imagination plays a trick. We see these soldiers in our mind as old and wise. We see them as something like the Founding Fathers, grave and gray haired. But most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives — the one they were living and the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us.”
President Reagan went on to make the case for peace through strength so that more Americans would not have to make the ultimate sacrifice.
On Veterans Day 2016, we think of not only those buried at Arlington and other national military cemeteries, but of the living veterans around us, many of whom paid an enormous price to keep our country free. As our American soldiers, sailors and airmen continue to serve in far-flung, dangerous places, we need to honor their service not only with our spoken gratitude but with the assurance of medical and economic security.
The national shame of a Veterans Administration exposed as failing to live up to its promise to care for our veterans must end. Now that we’ve turned a page through a national election, we have a moral obligation to ensure that our veterans are not only remembered but properly treated and properly honored.
All of us at the American Civil Rights Union wish America’s veterans and their families a blessed Veterans Day. Thank you for your service.