Veterans Day 2013 deserves special observance – for many reasons. For those who see the day to remember the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served this country, the day has historic and political significance. For others the fact that November 11 falls on Monday means another long weekend.
Like the story of every veteran, the evolution from Armistice Day to Veterans Day is a story in itself.
The commemoration of Armistice Day on November 11 actually dates from November 1919 when President Wilson proclaimed the day Armistice Day in recognition of the agreement between the Allied Nations and Germany. Interesting to note, it was not until June 4, 1926, that the US. Congress officially recognized the end of World War I. And it was not until 1938 that the Congress officially designated November 11, “Armistice Day”, a legal holiday to honor those who served in World War I.
After World War II and Korea, Armistice Day took on new meaning. In 1954, Congress responding to public opinion and pressure from veterans groups by changing the name to “Veterans Day”, a day to honor American veterans of all wars. On October 8, 1954 President Eisenhower issued the Veterans Day Proclamation that made that change.
In 1968 the Uniform Holiday Bill made major changes in the nation’s holidays. The change was intended to ensure three-day weekends, originally for federal employees, by celebrating four national holidays on Mondays: Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day. The idea was that the extended weekends would stimulate travel and greater industrial commercial production. The fact that not all of the states agreed with the plan continues to cause confusion.
No surprise, the first Veterans Day under the new law, celebrated on Monday, October 25, 1971, caused consideration confusion. The three-day weekend eclipsed the historic and patriotic significance of the occasion. As a result, in 1975 President Ford signed the law that returned the annual observance of Veterans Day to its original November 11 date, beginning in 1978.
So this year is rare in that the official Veterans Day does happen to fall on a three-day weekend. The harmonic convergence ought to give us time to deal with some of our own conflicting thoughts. As a people we are confused about war, and thus about how to honor those who have served in the military. Many of us have no experience on which to base our thoughts; some of us who have served are quiet about their experience. Veterans of earlier wars are no longer with us to share their stories.
On Monday, November 11, thousands of Americans will gather in town squares and veterans cemeteries to honor the war dead. Still, many of us may let the day pass with scant thought of its historic, patriotic or human significance. We mean well, but we are easily distracted by the cares of the day.
One possibility is to pause at some point over the weekend to explore the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. It is truly mesmerizing to read, view, and listen to the stories of veterans who have served in war and conflicts beginning with World War I and continuing through accounts of the Gulf War, the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. The resource offers a unique way to recreate, to learn and to generate discussion and understanding of veterans’ stories. And it’s all online at http://www.loc.gov/vets/
Photos, letters from the battlefield, memorabilia and, most important, the recorded and transcribed stories of veterans “put a face” on the experience of men and women who have generously shared their memories. There are stories of young men and women facing boot camp, combat, boredom, loneliness and loss. Some stories are whimsical, some tragic, all reflective of a time of stress and learning in the life of a young person away from home. Each is recorded with the care of someone who took the time to capture the story for posterity.
The Veterans History Project collection includes combat veterans as well as the stories of civilians who were actively involved in support of war efforts – USO workers, flight instructors, medical volunteers and war industry workers. The collection is easily searchable by the veteran’s name, his or her field of battle, hometown, branch of service or multiple other characteristics.
The Veterans History Project is an open source initiative. The Folklife Center collection is a living resource; anyone who has a story or who knows a vet or support person who has a story to share is encouraged to learn how easy it is to participate. The website offers clear and easily followed guidelines for anyone who is willing to share his or her experience or to assist a vet to remember and record.
Trust me, you will find yourself absorbed in the stories of veterans you may never know – from these wise men and women we can all better understand why we set aside November 11 to honor them and their nameless colleagues.