Veterans Day has its origins in Armistice Day, which was first acknowledged by President Wilson in 1919. The first anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles took place “in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” Congress made Armistice Day a national holiday on November 11, 1938.
Alvin King, a small business owner in Emporia, Kansas, had a problem with the name Armistice Day. Al was so moved by the death of his nephew, John E. Cooper, who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II that he, along with the Emporia Chamber of Commerce, started a movement to rename and redefine Armistice Day as Veterans Day. His goal was to expand recognition beyond those who served in WWI. The idea caught on and President Eisenhower made Veterans Day official in 1954.
But who should be recognized on Veterans Day? If you’re looking for the definition of a military veteran, good luck. There are several variations on that theme, since the veteran universe is primarily associated with financial benefits. Consequently, the government has a lot at stake in the official definition.
The most common technical definition of a veteran is someone who served on active duty for more than six months, while assigned to a regular U.S. armed services unit. But I think the case should be made for a practical definition. Adam Smith may have provided the first one in 1776, in his seminal book, The Wealth of Nations.
Smith described America’s revolutionary army as those who “turn from their primary citizen character into a standing army.” Those “Minutemen” were just private citizens, making themselves available to their country. Today we would classify many of them as small business owners and employees.
Finally, in 2016, the government decided that retired members of the Reserves and National Guard – after 20 years of service – could refer to themselves as veterans, while still not being otherwise eligible for any associated veterans benefits. As good as this news is, it doesn’t go far enough.
For generations, millions of Guard and Reserve members made themselves available to their country for a period of less than 20 years, even during war time, knowing they might be deployed, like John E. Cooper. In that spirit, I offer this more appropriate definition of a veteran from an anonymous author:
A Veteran – whether active duty, retired, National Guard or Reserve – is someone who, at one point in their life, wrote a check made payable on demand to The United States of America, for an amount up to and including their life.
America has received, held and cashed this “check” from millions of members of the Guard and Reserves, who prepared themselves in many ways, and for many different periods of time, to “turn from their citizen character” to protect their country and defend their fellow citizens.
Write this on a rock … Happy Veterans Day to all who wore the uniform and made themselves available to a grateful nation.