The last few months have provided stark reminders of the dangerous ways the United States sometimes treats its veterans. “The Vietnam War,” the 10-part documentary by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, revisited the blame civilians placed on the men returning from war, and how the public shamed and mistreated them. Fast-forward to today’s White House, where reverence for the military is displayed frequently, and where questioning a four-star Marine general is considered “highly inappropriate.”
As this Veterans Day approaches, I find myself considering these two extremes and wondering where do we go from here.
First, how did Veterans Day come to be? It started off as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, a day to celebrate the first anniversary of the end of World War I. In 1926, Congress passed a resolution commemorating an annual observance of the event, and in 1938, November 11 became a national holiday. It was President Dwight Eisenhower who changed the holiday’s name to Veterans Day in 1954. Different from Memorial Day, which honors those who’ve died in service, Veterans Day celebrates all American veterans—both living and deceased—and thanks them for their service in war and in peace.
From those early patriotic hills, however, the country’s history of how it treats its veterans has been marked by dark and forbidding valleys. The treatment of service members returning from Vietnam is a black mark against our collective values. We have since worked hard to correct those wrongs and have done our best to support and celebrate the sacrifices of both veterans and military families. We have programs, non-profits, fundraisers, and advocacy groups all dedicated to supporting the military community. Congress passed and the president signed the “Forever GI Bill” in August to further protect the educational benefits of veterans and their beneficiaries. Lawmakers, with the support of the veteran community, continue to deliberate on the best path forward for timely and high-quality veteran healthcare. People tie yellow ribbons around trees, and, Americans thank veterans for their service seemingly at every opportunity. Those yellow ribbons not only signify that a soldier is far away somewhere in a war zone, but they also demonstrate a strong desire to see that service member’s safe homecoming.
In our effort to correct the wrongs of the past, however, we seem to have overcorrected. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to another. Many place the voice and views of veterans above other citizens simply based on their military service. We hear more and more that we shouldn’t question the word of senior military officials, not because they may not be correct but rather because they don the uniform. A segment of society now seems to view military service as the most pronounced emblem of patriotism and citizenry—a hard and steadfast definition of what it means to be American. Of course, military service is admirable for a plethora of reasons. Those who were drafted or volunteered absolutely deserve commendation for their sacrifice, and Veterans Day is rightly a special moment for those who have served in the armed forces.
Nevertheless, praiseworthy national service—particularly in the national security arena—comes in many forms. I sometimes worry that as a nation we forget this. It often escapes us that as each young Private First Class leaves his or her family and risks it all, a host of other important players—including civilian intelligence officers, logisticians, diplomats, and others—work tirelessly and also place themselves in harm’s way to support those in uniform and to ensure they have the resources necessary to fight smartly and safely. And countless other public servants, while not traveling directly into warzones or other dangerous areas, provide service members vital support so they can return home successful and unharmed.
But today we find our nation with a civil-military divide that is arguably the largest in a generation. With less than 1 percent of Americans serving in uniform in their lifetime, some seem to believe the military has a monopoly on patriotism. Having served in uniform myself—and being lucky enough to have been raised by a veteran and to have married into a family of veterans—I can assure you that this idea couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our patriotism—the fiber of who we are as a free nation—lies not just in symbols but also, and more importantly, in acts. While the Stars and Stripes will remain powerful imagery throughout the annals of history, what matters most is the courage of the men and women who selflessly rise to the challenge of public service. The flag and the anthem alone cannot represent life, liberty, and happiness. Those concepts are encapsulated in how all of us treat our neighbors and our friends, but also those who are strangers or who are different from us. And that fact is a constant reminder that the military does nothing alone.
The sacrifices made by veterans and their families mean so much, and there are many who support our community and embody the very principle of “E Pluribus Unum.” There is no path to prosperity that doesn’t include others who risk everything they have to help clear the trail. But together, as we celebrate and cherish the memory of what veterans—both among us and those who have gone—have provided our nation, let us take time, even if it’s only for a fleeting moment, to also thank those not in uniform, but who still quietly and honorably serve the country in their own ways to ensure this nation will forever remain the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Image: Getty/Spencer Platt