Veterans Day in America has its origins in Armistice Day.
“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.”
That 1919 quote by President Wilson commemorated the first anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI “in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” And then, on November 11, 1938, Congress made “Armistice Day” a federal holiday.
But since that war did not, in fact, end all wars, a decade later, an Emporia, Kansas small business owner named Alvin King had a problem with the narrowness of the Armistice Day definition. It turns out that Al’s nephew, John E. Cooper, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, which motivated him and the Emporia Chamber of Commerce to start a movement to redefine Armistice Day and give it a new name: Veterans Day.
The idea caught on so well that President Eisenhower took it up. After spending almost four decades in an Army uniform, the 34th U.S. President no doubt recognized that Memorial Day was already set aside for those who, as Lincoln recognized at Gettysburg four score and eleven years prior, “poured out the last full measure of devotion.” So, on November 11, 1954, the once five-star general and Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during WWII signed the proclamation that transformed the 11th day of the 11th month into “Veterans Day,” an annual moment when all who served should receive the gratitude of their grateful nation.
Perhaps Alvin King’s own Congressman, Ed Rees of Emporia, said it best: “Veterans Day would give the holiday a new meaning and more widespread patriotic observance.’’
But who is a veteran?
Having a lot at stake in that definition, since it could come with eligibility of valuable (read: expensive) benefits, the government initially stuck to a narrow one: “someone who served on active duty for more than six months, while assigned to a regular U.S. armed services unit.” Unfortunately, that description omitted generations of National Guard and Reserve members who, typically for four or more years, volunteered to serve their country honorably and with distinction.
Finally, in 2016, the government passed a law that allowed retired members of the Guard and Reserves to refer to themselves as veterans, but without being eligible for any of those benefits. This was progress, but it still didn’t go far enough for the millions of Guard and Reserve members who made themselves available to their country for less than 20 years – including during wartime – knowing they could be deployed in harm’s way at any time.
Indeed, to this date, the United States continues to count on the availability and dedication of these patriots. And in that spirit, it’s time to expand who we honor on Veterans Day based on historical evidence.
- Three-hundred-and-eighty-seven years ago, on December 13, 1636, the first Guard units – three regiments – were formed to protect the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
- In his 1776 seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith described America’s revolutionary army as those who “. . . turn from their primary citizen character into a standing army.” The legendary “Minutemen” were private citizens who made themselves available to their country as the need arose. Today, we would classify those volunteers as small business owners and employees.
- No less than nine times since WWII, Guard and Reserve members have served in major U.S. conflicts. In fact, according to the Rand Corporation, one-third of Americans deployed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of this century were Guard and Reserve members. Here’s the rest of the story: that same ratio holds true for American casualties in those conflicts.
There is also a powerful technical argument to be made. Since June 14, 1775, every member of the U.S. military – including the National Guard and Reserves – has sworn the same military oath of service. The modern version varies little from the original, primarily in the reference to the President and the Constitution, neither of which existed in 1775. Regardless of how many months spent on active duty, years of service, or MOS (military occupational specialty), the following is the right-hand-raised sacred vow, spoken out loud in front of witnesses, by all who step forward, put on a uniform, and say to their country, “Take me.”
“I, (YOUR NAME), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
So help me God!
Anyone who takes that oath and backs it up with training and honorable service – “support and defend” – deserves the honor of being called a veteran. So, on behalf of the millions of awesome men and women volunteer members of the National Guard and Reserves, including the hundreds I’ve known and served with, I propose the following definition, which borrows from an anonymous source:
“A Veteran is someone who served honorably in the military, including the National Guard and Reserve, and simultaneous with taking the oath, wrote a check of availability and preparedness, made payable on-demand to The United States of America, for an amount up to and including their life.”
For almost 400 years, America has received, held, and cashed this “check” from millions of patriots, who for different periods of time and in different ways, trained and stood by to protect and defend their Constitution, fellow citizens, and country. Every one an honored military veteran.
Write this on a rock … Happy Veterans Day to all who swore the military oath, served honorably, and made themselves available to a grateful nation. God bless America.