Veterans Day Special.
According to the USO (United Service Organizations), Veterans Day is a U.S. federal holiday that always falls on the eleventh of November. The holiday’s impetus was the end of fighting in World War I between Germany and the Allied and Associated nations. That day ended four years of fighting that had resulted in the deaths of eight million soldiers and 13 million civilians. The following year, the war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
Following the United Kingdom’s example of honoring unidentified WWI soldiers, the U.S. buried four of its own at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in 1919. The Army assigned guards to the Tomb in 1926 to discourage visitors from damaging it, and in 1937, according to the Department of Defense, guards became a permanent, continuous presence, standing watch. There has been a sentinel on duty ever since,which is appropriate since this quote from an anonymous poet captures the sentiment:
"Our flag does not fly because the wind moves it. It flies with the last breath of each soldier who died protecting it."
One of my favorite stories about that watch happened in 2003 as Hurricane Isabele landed in the vicinity of Washington D.C. According to the Washington Post, the watch commander gave permission to the guard detail, for the first time in its history, to seek shelter if the weather got bad enough. They’d remain in view of the Tomb, but not on the traditional black mat in front of it where they typically march 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Sergeant 1st Class Fredrick Geary, the detail’s commander for the night, made the decision to keep the watch on the mat throughout the storm. I love that he did that. In my mind, I hear him say, “Not on my watch, not on my damn watch.”
In 1938, Congress made the day a legal national holiday in recognition of World War I veterans: “... a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.’” But, in 1954, after the country had been through two more wars (WWII and the Korean War), Congress amended the holiday to honor American veterans of all wars.
In an effort to create a standard three-day holiday for federal employees, Congress passed a law in 1968 to ensure that four national holidays fell on a Monday: Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day. But many states didn’t agree with the consolidation and continued to celebrate Veterans Day on its original date. As you can imagine, that caused quite a bit of confusion. In 1975, President Ford signed the law that put Veterans Day officially back on 11 November.
And just to be clear, it's "Veterans Day," not "Veteran's Day." As the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs says, it’s not a holiday that veterans own, it’s a holiday “for honoring veterans directly in front of us right now.” But not just for the veterans themselves, we honor the entire system of family and friends who have supported the soldiers in the field since the first days of the American Revolution. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause.”
I wrote the following essay, “Reborn at Arlington,” back in 2000 when I was stationed at the Pentagon. I was at the end of my career and a simple “fun run,” something that soldiers have been doing for decades, made me realize the significance and honor of being part of the military tradition. As General George Patton said, “The Soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.” That’s my feeling exactly.
Reborn at Arlington
1,500 US Army soldiers stood on the misty parade field at Fort Meyer waiting for the sun to rise. The leadership had scheduled another morale building (yet mandated) "fun run" where once a quarter, the entire unit comes together to do PT (Physical Training) in a show of ésprit de corps and unit cohesion. Since we were all stationed at the Pentagon, many of us had been in the Army for a while. We were a little broken down in the body department and had seen our fair share of these types of events. There we were, at the twilight of our careers, huddled in small groups during the dawn of one more PT morning.
Of course, there was the usual grumbling between the older soldiers asking one another if we were motivated yet, and if we had a cup of ésprit de corps to spare. But there was a sprinkling of young soldiers among us too, and their shiny new faces kept us old timers from getting too cynical and fussy.
As the sun poked up above the horizon, the Army's Command Sergeant Major called the gaggle to attention and the formation began to run. The Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) led the assemblage in rousing voice and extolled the virtues of Granny, My Girl, and the C-130. Below the roar of the singing, just in the background, you could hear the footsteps of the 1500 strong pounding the pavement in syncopated rhythm.
The formation crested the hill overlooking Arlington Cemetery and the vista of Washington DC opened up before us. The Army Colors, at the front of the formation, started their descent towards the Cemetery just as the rising sun reached the top of the Washington Monument several miles distant. And still the singing and the pounding drove the formation as it snaked down the hill towards the front gates.
As the colors passed into the Cemetery, like a line of dominoes falling, the singing faded away. One platoon after the other fell silent in mute honor of our fallen comrades-in-arms laid to rest in the National Cemetery. As the voices muted, the only sound you could hear was the constant beat, beat, beat of the run and the Army colors whipping in the slight breeze. Nobody spoke except for the occasional NCO keeping everybody in step with a solid, but quiet, 1 - 2 - 3 - 4, 1 -2 - 3 - 4. It was serene. It was sublime.
Midway through the run, the Command Sergeant Major called the formation to a halt and commanded us to execute a right-face towards the middle of the cemetery. The morning sun had burned off the last vestiges of mist from the manicured lawns. The breeze trickled through the formation’s silence and the Army Colors at the front. And then we all heard it; that mournful sound of a single bugler playing Taps. He began low at first; almost whispering the sound through the horn. But slowly, his crescendo wrapped the listener into a cocoon of sadness, memory, and gratitude about the lives that could have been, or that was. On that misty morning, young and old soldiers alike shed mutual tears as the bugler played on.
When it was done and the silence greeted the end of the song, a chill went down my back. It occurred to me that we were not merely taking a morning jog anymore. We were actually passing in review. These fallen soldiers, some of whom had given the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and others who were prepared to do so, were watching us and sizing us up. I hoped that we could pass muster. I had this great desire to let them all know that we had the guide-on now and it was in good hands. We would not let them down.
I stood a little taller then. My old muscles didn’t ache so much. As we began to run home, the burden was a little lighter. As 1500 boarded the buses to head back to the Pentagon, I realized that this old soldier was less cynical today; less worn for wear. Although I may not have the shiny face of one of those new soldiers, I was reborn this morning. Together, both old and young, we will carry on.
Barbara, T. (2017). U.S. Periods of War and Dates of Recent Conflict. Congressional Research Service.
Gary brown: Remembering the lost on memorial day. (n.d.). The Repository. Retrieved October 10, 2022.
Greenspan, J. (n.d.). 15 quotes honoring U.S. Veterans. HISTORY. Retrieved October 10, 2022.
How many people died during World War I? | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved October 3, 2022.
Lin, H. (2022, September 29). Veterans day history. Military.Com.
Pelzer, K. (n.d.). They’re the reason why we’re the land of the free—75 of the best veterans day quotes. Parade: Entertainment, Recipes, Health, Life, Holidays. Retrieved October 10, 2022.
What to know about the history of this federal holiday. United Service Organizations. Retrieved October 3, 2022.
Tomb of the unknown soldier. (n.d.). U.S. Department of Defense. Retrieved October 3, 2022.
Vogel, S. (2003, October 2). Tomb guards stand sentinel through isabel’s threatening sweep. Washington Post.