Essentially this historic event ended what America's president, Woodrow Wilson, referred to as the "war to end all wars." As we well know some eight decades later it didn't do that at all. It did however set the stage for a holiday honoring America's veterans.
As a schoolboy I learned the significance of the day by celebrating Armistice Day each year on November 11th, a date established by congressional resolution in the mid-1920s. There were parades, patriotic church services, special events in public schools, etc.
Unfortunately, WWI did not end all wars and soon the world would be at war again. In the early 1940s, America lost more than 400,000 young men in World War II, where more than 16 million Americans served on active duty. Hundreds of thousands more were wounded or missing. The Korean conflict erupted a few years later and America lost another 33,000 uniformed personnel, with more than 8,000 more missing in action.
Following the Korean Conflict, Congress passed a bill which, when signed by President Eisenhower, would recognize all veterans on November 11th. As a consequence, we now celebrate Veterans Day rather than Armistice Day as it was previously known.
Today there are about 270 million Americans. Less than 10 percent, or 25 million, are living veterans. Interestingly, more than three-fourths of these 25 million Americans served their country during a period of defined hostilities. But the number of veterans is getting smaller each year.
About 8 million American veterans served during WW II. More than 1,000 of these vets are dying each day. And with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War a decade ago, America has reduced its uniformed population by one-third. Ergo, these two factors combine to see a dwindling veteran population.
America's veterans know no sex, race, ethnicity, religion nor home state. They represent all segments of our society. From the retiring corporate CEO's and business tycoons who benefited so greatly from the GI Bill of the late 1940s (The Greatest Generation as chronicled by Tom Brokaw) to the homeless vets too often identified with America's venture into Southeast Asia in the 1960s and '70s. And all segments in between.
Over the years, Veterans Day has held a very special meaning to our people. Astonishingly, in 1968 Congress passed a law moving the observance of Veterans Day to the last Monday in October. This, of course, was modeled after other less reverent holidays which were moved to provide more three-day weekends for holiday activities. Many Americans didn't like the change. They became rather vocal about their respect for "the" day of November 11. In the late 1970s, Congress passed another act returning Veterans Day observance to its rightful date of November 11.
But something is missing from days past. There are fewer and fewer events on November 11 to honor America's veterans. Fewer and fewer flags are flying. We have lost some of the reverence for this special day. That is too bad for America's youth.
Today's youth -- tomorrow's leaders -- need to know and appreciate the service and the sacrifices of our veterans (and the devastating loss to millions of family members) so as to make reasoned decisions in the future. No man or woman in uniform seeks conflict or war. They know they are the ones who will be facing the enemy. They will be tomorrow's casualties should conflict occur. They seek peace through strength.
The bombing of the USS Cole reminds us just how fragile peace can be. The world is still a dangerous place for our military personnel. There may no longer be a monolithic enemy such as the Soviet Union presented for decades. In this new century it may be a rogue nation developing weapons of mass destruction such as chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. It may be a determined terrorist organization operating from remote areas with somewhat simplistic weapons.
Whatever and wherever the enemy may be, America needs a strong, well-equipped military force to protect our national interests at home and abroad. We need to support our men and women who serve -- our tomorrows' veterans. Failure to respect and honor past veterans has a negative effect on those serving or those who would serve.
And there has been failure in this regard. For decades, our government has failed to honor promises to millions of veterans and their families. For example, there was a promise to provide lifelong medical treatment to those who served for a full career. However, many years ago Congress passed legislation limiting treatment to retired veterans over 65 years of age to military facilities on a space available basis only or to Medicare.
As a consequence, older veterans and family members must have supplemental insurance to cover their medical needs. There has also been no veteran provided prescription coverage for the senior retirees over 65. While I may be able to afford the supplemental insurance and prescriptions, we all need to remember that most veterans are living on very limited budgets and cannot do so. We need to keep our promises to them.
Fortunately, a grass roots effort from millions of veterans and veterans organizations has brought congressional action to restore some of the promised medical benefits to millions of veterans. They will become available on October 1, 2001.
There is an old axiom that is relevant around Veterans Day. It goes something like this: "In peacetime, sons bury their fathers. In wartime, fathers bury their sons." Sadly, it is all too true.
On this Veterans Day fly your flag; reflect on the democracy that is ours to enjoy; and, oh yes, take a moment to say thanks to a veteran. Our nation abounds with prosperity bought with the blood and agony of our veterans and their families. This is the fifth in a series of monthly columns written by retired U.S. Air ForceLt. Gen. Robert D. Springer. Springer is the president of NovaLogic Systems Inc., of Calabasas, Calif., which provides integrated PC software solutions to the defense community and others in the areas of simulation, mission editing, distributive mission training and planning, terrain database modeling and visualization. Gen. Springer is also a public speaker, lecturer and media consultant, including for WRAL-TV5.
In addition to his motivational speeches, he talks on ethics, leadership, national defense and foreign policy issues. He is the military consultant for the CBS affiliate, WRAL-TV5, in Raleigh, N.C. He has also appeared on the PBS McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, C-SPAN, Fox News, National Public Radio, ABC Radio and others.