13 Nov Veterans Day: National Service Not Retail Sales

When in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day – what is now Veterans Day – he envisioned a celebration honoring the men of our nation’s Armed Services who fought in World War I. The original concept included parades filled with pomp and pageantry, the displaying of the American flag on all public buildings, and observances in schools and businesses.

He could not have ever imagined what Veterans Day is today. Yes, there are parades, and flags are flown in tribute to the heroes, women and men, who served in the military. But, for the overwhelming majority of us civilians November 11 simply means a day off from school and work, no rush hour traffic, and lots of sales at stores and car dealerships.

Max Cleland, the former U.S. Senator from Georgia and the first disabled veteran to serve as what is now the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, hits the nail on the head in the new PBS documentary “Debt of Honor,” a history of disabled veterans in America that I am privileged to have conceived and funded. Repeating a catchphrase of one of our Armed Forces branches, he says, “America is not at war. The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.”

The challenge we face this Veterans Day and all those moving forward is to reconcile the disconnect between the comfortable life we civilians have at home with few of us having to suffer, and the men and women in our Armed Forces who are called upon to sacrifice their jobs, time with their families, and far too often their lives.

I was born in the 1930s and have vivid memories of World War II. Every family I knew had a member who was serving in the military. At the same time, we were all in service to our country, each of us knowing that in our own small way we were contributing to the war effort through food and gas rationing, planting “victory gardens,” working in war related industries, and being Gold Star mothers, among other endeavors.

For 300 million-plus Americans today, however, there is no realization on a daily basis of what our brothers and sisters are doing to keep us safe and secure. In fact, less than one percent of our population currently serves in the Armed Forces compared to more than 12 percent during World War II, and only 5 percent have a direct connect to someone in the military.

All of these men and women put on a military uniform and swore that they would die for us. And what do we do? Way too many of us marginalize them; way too many of us forget them.

That is why it is time for us to transform Veterans Day from one marked by 20% off sales, a town parade and a perfunctory display of the Stars and Stripes to one with deep and profound meaning in which all Americans are involved.

To do so, I am advocating for making Nov. 11 a national day of service, a day when each of us at home truly honors our veterans, disabled and abled, by volunteering for the benefit of our country. We can start by giving time and energy to veterans and veterans service organizations, whether it is helping do some renovations to a local VFW or American Legion post to doing chores around the house of a disabled veteran. Beyond that, there are so many soup kitchens, animal shelters, community organizations, school groups, and others looking for hands-on assistance, especially at a time when private and public funding is becoming more difficult to attract.

We can never truly repay the debt we owe our veterans. We can, however, honor and show our support for them by dedicating ourselves to making their lives better, just as they made ours. Indeed, if these true American heroes can give us 365 days of service a year, the least we can do is give them, and our great nation, one in return.

Lois Pope, a nationally prominent philanthropist, conceived the idea and chaired the campaign for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington, DC, and conceived and funded “Debt of Honor,” a history of disabled veterans in America that airs on PBS on Nov. 10.