Today, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m. millions of Americans will participate in Veterans Day ceremonies honoring the service and sacrifice of all of America’s veterans.
Millions more will not. Many Americans remain oblivious of the history of the national holiday and that it is celebrated to honor all veterans, from the first veterans who secured our freedom in the Revolutionary War to the veterans who have safeguarded our American freedom in every war since, including those serving today.
Veterans Day ceremonies take place at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month because it was on Nov. 11, at 11 a.m. that the armistice that ended World War I was signed in 1918. Congress established “Armistice Day” in 1926 to honor those who served in World War I. In 1954, it was renamed Veterans Day to honor all veterans.
According to the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, more than 42-million Americans have served to defend American freedom in wartime in all the wars.
More than 1 million veterans have given their lives, including some 655,000 killed in battle and another 540,000 dying while serving in wartime from non-battle causes. Another 1.5 million veterans have suffered non-fatal battle wounds, many permanently disabling.
The Founding Father of our nation, George Washington, was first and foremost a soldier, a veteran who was “the indispensable man,” historians generally agree, without whose military valor and martial virtue American freedom would not have been obtained. It is often forgotten that the Revolutionary War was the longest war in our history until the Vietnam War – a war pitting the greatest military power on earth against a ragtag citizens army without proper equipment, clothing, food or necessities, but endowed with the spirit of freedom.
I believe the most moving image in our American iconography is that of George Washington, the father of our country and general of the Revolutionary Army, kneeling in humble prayer at Valley Forge, in snow stained by the bloody footsteps of America’s first citizen soldiers, the veterans who made us free.
Washington said about those veterans, as quoted in William J. Federer’s now classic “For God And Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations”:
No history now extant can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done and bearing them with the same patience and fortitude. To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes (for the want of which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet) … and submitting without a murmur, is a proof of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be paralleled.
George Washington said to those soldiers of the American Revolutionary Army, as Federer records: “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage of this Army. … We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.”
We are those “unborn millions” of Americans of whom Washington spoke. We owe a great debt to all those veterans of the Revolutionary War whose service and sacrifice secured our freedom, and to all those veterans of each succeeding generation whose service and sacrifice has preserved our freedom through all the wars.
It may truly be said of America’s veterans, of every generation, including this one: “All gave some; and some gave all.”
We can repay the debt that we owe to those veterans who came before us only by what we are willing to do to preserve the freedom of those Americans who will come after us.
The inspiring poem, “Flanders Fields,” came out of World War I, that terrible war that killed some 10 million combatants altogether, before the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. However, we may appropriately apply the words of “Flanders Fields” to all veterans as we gather on Nov. 11, 2006, to honor and remember the service and sacrifice of the veterans of every generation who paid the price for our freedom and passed the torch of liberty to us:
- In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row by row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard among the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved,
And now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you, from falling hands we throw
The torch; be it yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
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Rees Lloyd is the commander of District 21 and director of the Defense of Veterans Memorials Project of the American Legion Department of California.