Roughly 7% of the US population are veterans, and each year, we dedicate a special day to honoring their service. US Marine Corps image by Lance Cpl. Efren DonJuan Pedraza.
Picture this: It’s Veterans Day and you are at the grocery store picking up beer and rib-eyes for a backyard barbecue. In the checkout line, you notice that the man in front of you is wearing a leather vest adorned with Marine Corps insignia. With his gray hair and faded tattoos, he looks old enough to have served in Vietnam, or maybe even the Korean War.
The man is clearly a veteran. You want to wish him a happy Veterans Day, but you’re not sure if that’s appropriate. You consider falling back on the old faithful, “Thank you for your service,” but ultimately you decide to err on the side of saying nothing. You finish checking out, and as you drive home, you kick yourself for never having taken the time to learn what this holiday you’re celebrating is actually all about.
Vincent Consigito watches Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 26 march in the New York City Veterans Day parade, Nov. 11, 2009. The unit was formed to showcase Marine Corps personnel, aircraft, vehicles, and equipment while docked at Pier 88 for the USS New York commissioning. US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Danielle Bolton.
Every Veterans Day, many Americans find themselves in similar awkward situations. They want to enjoy the day off work, yet they know the holiday should be more than just an occasion for grilling steaks and tossing back cold ones with the boys. So, then, what exactly is Veterans Day? Why do we celebrate it, and how did the holiday originate?
Well, fortunately, your search for answers has brought you to the right place. We’ve got you covered.
Veterans Day is an annual national holiday and one of 11 days of the year that federal employees are required to have off work.
Most Americans, whether they work in the public or private sector, get the day off (or, if the holiday falls on a weekend, the previous Friday or the following Monday). The time off is meant for reflecting on the contributions and sacrifices made by everyone who has ever served in the US armed forces. In fact, every Veterans Day, the current president is supposed to issue a proclamation in which he urges Americans to observe two minutes of silence in recognition of veterans and their service to our nation.
The United States Honor Guard marches in the Veterans Day Parade in New York, Nov. 11, 2019. The Honor Guard performed in the parade to honor veterans and to inspire, recruit, and retain future airmen. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Noah Sudolcan.
Veterans Day is often confused with Memorial Day. The difference is simple but important. Memorial Day specifically honors those who lost their lives in the line of duty, unlike Veterans Day, which celebrates everyone who has served. Memorial Day is always the last Monday in May and is meant to be a more somber occasion than Veterans Day.
The history of Veterans Day is complicated, but it falls on the same day every year: Nov. 11 (just one day after the Marine Corps’ birthday).
The date is historically significant: On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, Allied forces signed an armistice with Germany, effectively ending World War I. Though the Treaty of Versailles wasn’t signed until the following summer, the armistice ended the fighting in Europe, which by that point had caused an estimated 40 million military and civilian casualties, including more than 100,000 Americans.
Exactly one year after the armistice was signed, President Woodrow Wilson addressed the nation and called on Americans to reflect “with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service.” In 1938, Congress declared Nov. 11 a national holiday dedicated to the cause of world peace and called it Armistice Day.
Distinguished visitors and military members prepare to present wreaths at the base of a memorial wall during a Veterans Day memorial event at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, England, Nov. 12, 2018. The ceremony marked 100 years since the first Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1918, when World War I came to an end. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brian Kimball.
Then, in 1945, a World War II US Navy veteran named Raymond Weeks had the idea to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all vets, not just those killed in World War I. It wasn’t until 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially implemented Weeks’ proposal, that the holiday we now celebrate every Nov. 11 was born. Congress officially changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day on June 1, 1954.
In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved three federal holidays — Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Labor Day — to Mondays. Veterans Day was originally included and was moved to the fourth Monday in October, but in 1978 it returned to Nov. 11, which is also the date of Remembrance Day, a holiday similar to our Memorial Day celebrated by the 56 nation-states of the Commonwealth, including Canada, the UK, and many former territories of the British Empire.
Why do we celebrate Veterans Day? The simple answer is that we celebrate the holiday to honor veterans and express our appreciation for their military service, regardless of whether they served in war or during peacetime.
American Legion members post before performing a 21-gun salute at the annual Veterans Day ceremony at Mountain Home, Idaho, Nov. 11, 2016. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Connor J. Marth.
But that answer raises a more fundamental question: Why do we need a day to honor veterans when their service to our nation warrants our respect and gratitude year-round? Well, for starters, it’s important to note that, while roughly 18 million Americans living today have served in the military, that number amounts to only about 7% of the country’s total population.
Even more remarkable: Less than 1% of the population is currently serving on active duty. This means there are millions of Americans out there with little to no direct connection to the military. And for those people, Veterans Day might be a necessary reminder that there are men and women among them who sacrificed their liberty — and, in some cases, a lot more — to serve and protect the country we call home.
Many people spend the holiday around a grill with friends and family or simply kicking their feet up. Others take advantage of Veterans Day discounts offered by major retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, L.L. Bean, and Under Armour, to name just a few. Those are certainly good ways to spend a day off, but of course barbecues and bargain shopping have little to do with the cause of celebrating and honoring American veterans.
“Veterans Day is a day to reflect on and be grateful for every one of my brothers and sisters who signed their name in commitment to our country and its citizens, and were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if that day were to come,” Jenna Bakken, a combat-wounded Army veteran, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I’m proud to be a part of a generation of an all-volunteer force.”
Members of the Anaheim Cub Scout Pack No. 546 pose for pictures with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit color guard during a Veterans Day ceremony outside City Hall in Anaheim, Calif., Nov. 9, 2013. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Emmanuel Ramos.
Those who want to celebrate Veterans Day in a more traditional manner have no shortage of options. There are hundreds of veterans organizations across the country, and many of them — like the VFW and American Legion — will host their own local Veterans Day events.
In terms of size and attendance, the biggest event of the holiday is probably New York City’s famous Veterans Day parade. The massive procession through downtown Manhattan has been an annual event since the end of World War I. Those closer to the West Coast might be more inclined to attend the San Fernando Valley Veterans Day parade in Los Angeles, which is expecting a crowd of 20,000 this year and will be followed by a weekend carnival.
Of course, Veterans Day events aren’t exclusive to the big cities. Many, if not most, small towns and rural counties host parades as well.
Additionally, Arlington National Cemetery is hosting its 64th annual Veterans Day Observance, during which visitors can attend the Presidential Armed Forces Full Honor wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as a performance by the United States Air Force Band. If you’ve never visited Arlington National Cemetery before, Veterans Day is the perfect time to go.
Yes! While there might be more creative ways to express gratitude to those who have served in the military, wishing them a happy Veterans Day is more than okay.
Youth from Pack 422 watch Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 26 march in the New York City Veterans Day parade, Nov. 11, 2009. The unit was formed to showcase Marine Corps personnel, aircraft, vehicles, and equipment while docked at Pier 88 for the USS New York commissioning. US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Danielle Bolton.
Remember, Memorial Day is different. Wishing someone a “Happy Memorial Day” can come across as naive or insensitive because, as we’ve already mentioned, it’s supposed to be a somber occasion. But Veterans Day is ultimately about recognition — about reminding veterans that their service to the country is remembered and appreciated — and since that is the case, a simple “Happy Veterans Day” will suffice. Even for veterans themselves, the holiday can be an opportunity for them to stop and reflect on their time in the military.
“Veterans Day reminds me to reflect on my own experiences from when I wore the uniform,” Stephanie Geis, a former US Navy surface warfare officer, told Coffee or Die. “I still feel immense pride for having served.”
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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