Today is Veterans Day, when we remember everyone who has served in the US armed forces. It's distinct from Memorial Day, when we remember everyone killed while in service; on Veterans Day we remember the living, as well as the dead.
Veterans Day began, way back when, as an observance of the end of WWI. President Wilson observed it in 1919, then Coolidge did so again, in 1926, at the request of Congress. Later, in 1938, a Congressional Act was passed making it a perpetual nation holiday:
a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as 'Armistice Day'.
In 1954, after it had become all too painfully obvious that WWI was not, in fact, the war to end all wars, the holiday was expanded to honor servicepeople and veterans of all US wars
And that brings us to today.
We've been in Afghanistan for over eleven years now, and Iraq almost ten. The scope of our involvement in both places has scaled down, thankfully, but still, today, there are Americans in both places, in harm's way. Unlike in either WWI, or WWII, or the Korean War, or Vietnam, both Afghanistan and Iraq have been conducted by a purely volunteer military - we no longer have a draft, or any requirement for universal or even broad-based participation in military service, or any other form of public service. As a result, the burden of our involvement in those two wars has fallen, disporportionately, on a fairly small sector of the population.
War chews people up. It damages them, sometimes forever. Physically, psychologically, morally, spiritually, emotionally. The sophistication of our modern war-making technology means that many more of our people survive, but in many cases that comes at a cost of extreme, life-changing traumatic head damage. Even for folks who return physically whole, the process of finding their way back into normal, everyday life is fraught with difficulties including traumatic psychic damage, substance abuse, family problems, or even simply finding a job.
Somewhere between one in four and one in three homeless people are veterans. The rate of suicide among active personnel now approaches one a day. There are a lot of folks who are simply being crushed by the consequences of their service over the last 12 years.
It's common to refer to folks who are serving or have served in Afghanistan and Iraq as 'heroes'. I have no issue with that on its face, there is certainly a heroic aspect to putting yourself in harm's way in service to your country. But I often think we use that term to distance ourselves from the reality of what those folks live with, day to day. It's as if they are some other category of person, and their problems and difficulties are just part of what they have taken on by stepping into the role of 'hero'.
What I think we forget is that we - all of us, each and every one of us, regardless of what our positions on either Afghanistan or Iraq are or were - own some responsibility for what happens to these people, because they went in our name.
On this Veterans Day, I would like to ask everyone reading this to try to find some way to help the folks who are serving, and have served, the country, at our demand, and in our name. Nearly every community in the country has some organization or other doing the good, necessary, and hard work of helping these folks find their way back into civilian life. There's something all of us can do.
We owe it to those who have served.