Veterans’ Day, as we’re reminded every year, was originally Armistice Day, so declared by President Wilson in 1919, a year to the day after the Great War ended. It’s one of the few remaining national holidays still observed on its own day, wherever it falls in the week, not shifted to Monday or Friday to facilitate three-day bender weekends.
Veterans’ Day, today, is the one where we honor all veterans, living and dead, past and present … as opposed to Memorial Day (the last Monday in May), the one where we honor the dead.
Well, here’s to me, a living veteran of the Cold War (with participation trophy ribbons for serving during the Vietnam and Gulf wars).
According to stats I looked up this morning, about 40% of my cohort — living American males over 75 years of age — are veterans. I’d guess the bulk of us served during the Cold and Vietnam wars, when we still had a draft. For men who grew up in the all-volunteer era, it’s a lot less: 3% of men aged 18-34; 8% of men aged 35-54. The numbers for women are even smaller: less than 1% of those aged 18-34, less than 2% of those aged 35-54.
When I think about it, it astounds me how few of the men and women I know today are veterans. Not that long ago, when I was in uniform, everyone I worked with — and virtually everyone I associated with off-duty — was also military. In those days I took it for granted the few civilians I’d meet had at least served at some point in their lives and shared the common experience of barracks, chow halls, reveille and retreat, squaring off in formation, base exchanges, deployments. Twenty-four years later, I still catch myself making that initial assumption — only to be brought up short by the realization almost no one I’m likely to meet or hang out with today ever served.
I want to mention my grandfathers, Estes Caldwell and Fay Woodford, ancestral veterans of the Great War, both still on duty on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the armistice was declared. Estes, a sailor, heard the news aboard a US Navy ship in the Atlantic; Fay, a soldier, was on the ground in France. Estes went home to civilian life; Fay stayed on duty in France for another year, helping rebuild that country’s railroad system. My father, too, was a vet: a sailor during WWII, then an Air Force officer during the Cold War. Some of my more distant ancestors served the Union during the Civil War and at least one was around during the Revolution (though whether he fought or was a loyalist I don’t know).
I’ll finish with a quote from a Veterans’ Day post I wrote in 2011:
Why did I join the military in the first place? I didn’t have to, unlike many in my generation who were drafted. I wanted to. I wanted a better, more meaningful career. I wanted discipline and direction. I wanted the self-pride that comes with discipline and direction. I wanted to prove to myself that I could master a demanding profession. I wanted to pay my country and society back for some of the advantages it had given me. I wanted to be part of something big and important. I imagine it was the same for my father when he gave up postwar civilian life to re-enter the military. I hope it is the same for the young men and women who enlist today.
When I look at young troops today, many of them veterans of multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, I am simply filled with admiration. They have it tough. They are literally fighting for our country. Many have died; many many more have been horribly wounded, physically and psychologically. Many are out of the service today and having a hard time adjusting to civilian life; many more cannot find work and must feel that their countrymen have turned their backs to them. We owe these young men and women. We owe them a lot. I hope we live up to our obligations.
To my brothers and sisters in arms, a salute. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifices.