Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day 2010. More Than a Legal Holiday, a Covenant

Out of all my posts on America’s ten legal holidays, this one is the most important and strikes closest to home. Even more so than the debt the nation owes our veterans, I owe two vets, my parents, for my existence and for inspiring my accomplishments.

Veterans Day, thankfully, is generally well-observed, with many personal and societal ceremonies and tributes, even if it is not a day-off for many. So, as legal holidays go, we seem to do right by Veterans Day, but I’m more concerned about the other 364 days. First, however, let’s consider the legal history.

Originally Armistice Day, the 11th day of the 11th month commemorated the 1918 Treaty of Versailles and the end of the Great War, the “war to end all wars” (was there ever a slogan you more wanted to be true?), and honored those who served in it. World War II forced us to admit the fallacy of the slogan and recognize the Great War as World War I. After the Korean “Conflict” (legal semantics for political purposes), Congress, in 1954, recognized the need to honor all who serve and gave the holiday its present name, Veterans Day.

Korean War Veterans Memorial
Congress did a major disservice to Veterans Day when, in 1971, it separated the holiday from its roots by moving the observance to the 4th Monday in October. The American people tolerated that for only a few years and the original date was restored in 1978. But to truly “remember our solemn obligations to our veterans” as President Obama asks, then Veterans Day must be a year-long commitment of this nation.

I mentioned my parents both served. They enlisted, as many Americans do, as recent high school graduates. I am particularly indebted to an unknown designer of recruiting posters. My mother marched into the recruiting office fully intending to join the Navy, but an Air Force poster showing young people at the Eiffel Tower changed her mind. The poster was prophetic. My parents would have their second date in Paris, France.

So it was that my siblings and I would grow-up on and around Air Force bases. So it also was that we would see Mom and Dad, as beneficiaries of the GI Bill, each earn a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s Degree. “The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944,” otherwise known as the GI Bill or the GI Bill of Rights, not only carried out the covenant between this nation and its defenders, it transformed my family as it transformed the nation. Homeownership and college lay beyond the grasp, both economically and psychologically, of much of America before the GI Bill; after, everything changed.

On a walk around Denver’s Fort Logan National Cemetery, I am humbled by the lives cut short by war, but also by the contributions of the many who served and came back to create even more blessings for our country. I imagine the young people, like my parents, who leveraged their country’s investment in them to transform America. Veterans raise expectations, not just for themselves, but for their children and their children’s children, and ultimately, for us all. I imagine the Fort Logan vets as entrepreneurs, teachers, police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, builders, engineers, and even lawyers. I imagine them as mothers and fathers. I see the lives you and I live not only as defended, but also enabled by their ideals.

Denver's Fort Logan National Cemetery
Our covenant with our vets, like all agreements, needs to be kept current. The GI Bill has been updated a few times and as recently as 2008, but still we struggle. One-third of America’s homeless are veterans. The economy facing discharged servicemen and women today is all too similar to that facing the World War I veterans whose political and literal battles with our government inspired that first GI Bill. If our investment in that “bonus army” gave birth to a transformed America, we should expect that doing our best for our modern heroes will prove more essential to our current economic reformations than any business bailout. Besides, it is the right thing to do.

I end this post with another, more personal, photo of a standard government-isssue tombstone. This one is not in a national cemetery, but in a small graveyard near the northwestern shore of Lake Buchanan in the Texas Hill Country. Uniformity connects in death as in life; even the casual observer will know that an American hero is buried here. I am honored to call this hero Dad and I miss him very much.

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