On Thursday, at precisely eleven in the morning Washington time, President Bush spoke at the annual Veterans’ Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns –- the unnamed soldiers who fell in three wars.
The time of day for the event is significant. Many older Americans, and not so many younger ones, know it was on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month -- November 11th, 1918 -- that Germany surrendered to Allied forces, ending “the Great War” –- better known as World War One. Jubilant celebrations lasted for days in many parts of the world. And beginning three years later, following the dedication at Arlington Cemetery of the tomb of a single unknown American soldier, many communities began to mark “Armistice Day” with patriotic parades and speeches. In 1938, Congress declared November 11th a federal holiday, dedicated to world peace.
But that peace did not last a year.
After another world war that required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen in American history –- followed closely by a bloody conflict in Korea -- President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 asked Congress to change Armistice Day to “Veterans’ Day,” to honor all Americans who served their country in peace and war. Chris Scheer at the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that’s the key distinction between Veterans’ Day, which always falls on November 11th, and Memorial Day, which is observed on a Monday in May. One honors the living, and one salutes the dead.
“Memorial Day is specifically a day of remembrance of those who have died in service to their country in battle. Its origins go back to the Civil War [of the 1860s] in this country. Veterans’ Day honors all veterans, but particularly the twenty-five million men and women in the United States who are alive and are veterans of today.”
Mr. Scheer says that on Veterans’ Day, there are solemn ceremonies all across America, at each of the 120 national cemeteries, and at veterans’ medical centers from Puerto Rico in the Caribbean to Hawaii and Guam in the Pacific.
“Particularly this year, with Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom going strong, many young men and women in uniform serving in harm’s way overseas, many communities are celebrating Veterans’ Day but focusing on those men and women in the military who have served and have returned to their communities.”
And no place in America has a longer Veterans’ Day tradition than Birmingham, the largest city in the southern state of Alabama, where William Voigt a thirty-seven-year veteran of the Air National Guard and Reserves, chairs the local Veterans’ Day committee.
“We held our first observance of National Veterans’ Day in 1947. So we were in operation seven years before it was enacted as a national holiday.”
Festivities in Birmingham begin with a dinner honoring a nationally prominent veteran. In previous years this has included such notables as World War Two flying ace Jimmy Doolittle, actor Jimmy Stewart, and astronaut Neil Armstrong. Next -- harking back to the old Armistice Day -- comes a world peace luncheon where, this year, one hundred-ten-year-old Joe Dollar Hair -- one of the fewer than two hundred living survivors of World War One -- will be honored.
In Birmingham, as in many American towns and cities, there’s a big downtown parade.
“At the very start of our parade, we have a banner that says, ‘We Remember.’ And the veterans’ organizations nowadays can’t carry that particular banner [because it’s so heavy, and they’re so frail]. It takes three or four people to do so, and they just can’t do it any more. This indicates the age, the declining health of the World War Two veterans and Korean veterans. And so we are increasing emphasis on the Vietnam folks, the [first Iraqi war] ‘Desert Storm’ folks, many of whom are still in the National Guard and Reserves.”
These are the veterans on the mind of forty-two-year-old retired Army ranger Steve Robinson, who’s now executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center -- an advocate for Gulf War veterans.
“Veterans’ Day for me is every day. Every day is a battle to keep our benefits from eroding, to watchdog the Department of Defense and make sure that mistakes that were made in previous wars aren’t repeated on veterans fighting in this war. So for me on Veterans’ Day, while I’m proud, I’m almost saddened that, on the national level, one day a year thinking about people who go out and sacrifice for this country -- while it’s a great gesture -- I think about people that need help, I think about people that have fallen through the cracks. I think about people that have died. So for me it’s a somber time.”
On Veterans' Day in the morning before the ceremony, Steve Robinson and other veterans’-group leaders met with the president at the White House, and then accompanied him to Arlington Cemetery for the wreath laying.