World War I wasn’t always known by that name. At the time it was called The Great War, because to that point there had never been a greater modern conflagration when measured by blood or treasure, nor any inkling that there any could follow it. It was also known as the “War to End All Wars” because everyone assumed that the world’s powers had essentially battled themselves into submission.
Unfortunately, neither of those names would stick. There have been many wars since what we now know as World War I, and though it is difficult to label any war “greater,” there have certainly been more of them.
Nevertheless, and if only for a brief moment in time, peace did prevail among warring nations of World War I. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month Germany and the Allied Nation’s signed an armistice that led all sides to set down their arms in hopes of negotiating a permanent peace. This was Armistice Day.
Sadly, peace is never permanent, and Americans would soon find themselves fighting and dying on the battlefields of World War II and Korea. The end of those wars caused Congress, at the urging of veterans’ organizations, to strike the word “Armistice” and substitute “Veterans.”
Veterans Day is a difficult thing to try and celebrate. We are asked to remember the sacrifices of our fellow Americans. And yet we, only 1 percent of whom has ever served in the military and only 5 percent of whom are related to a veteran, can’t possibly fathom, much less remember, what it is to fight on foreign soil. We stand and clap at sporting events as a digital flag is waved across the Jumbotron. We watch parades, where the marchers get grayer and the crowds get thinner. And we temporarily wear yellow ribbons on our lapels to in honor of the permanent injuries suffered by our returning veterans.
It’s not to say that any of that is wrong so much as it is to say that it is not enough. It will never be enough.
“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,” Ronald Reagan said in his 1995 Veterans Day address. “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. And all we can do is remember.”
Fortunately, we can do more. And oddly enough it may begin by taking them off a pedestal. As Alex Horton, a former infantryman in Iraq writes for The Atlantic:
“The good intentions of civilians are rarely in question, but detached admiration has always been a stand-in for the impulse to do “something” for veterans . . . That’s the problem with viewing something on a pedestal; you can only see one side at a time, and rarely at depth. It produces extremes—the valiant hero or the downtrodden, unstable veteran.”
But caricatures don’t capture the sum total of our veterans, most of whom don’t want to be defined as heroes or victims, but instead simply want to be part of our community and share in the everyday wants that we take for granted – an education, a family, and a job. In short they want an opportunity to thrive after they have spent so long fighting to survive.
So perhaps this Veterans Day we can not only reflect on the past, on the tremendous sacrifices our military men and women have made on our behalf, but we can also volunteer some of our time or donate some of our money to providing veterans with a more hopeful future. To that end, here are a few charities we’ve come across that are recommended by veterans:
- Hope for the Warriors: Works with post-9/11 service members and families to restore a sense of hope through things like professional development and financial assistance
- The Mission Continues: Connects veterans with nonprofits to reestablish a “sense of mission” while allowing for integration in the community
- Team Rubicon: Aims to bridge the gap between military and civilian life by uniting the skills of veterans with the needs of first responders to natural disasters
- The Pat Tillman Foundation: Invests in veterans and military families by providing educational scholarships
- Homes for Troops: Assists severely injured servicemen and women by building new homes or adapting existing ones free of charge to veterans
There will never be permanent peace. There will always be more veterans. There will always be a need to serve. The least we can do is answer the call.