Thanking America's Veterans
from The Water's Edge

Thanking America's Veterans

Today we recognize those who have served in the United States’ armed forces.
A group of veterans attend a wreath laying ceremony in Madison Square Park in New York City on November 11, 2020.
A group of veterans attend a wreath laying ceremony in Madison Square Park in New York City on November 11, 2020. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Today is Veterans Day. Americans first observed it on November 11, 1919, one year to the day after the end of the conflict they knew as the Great War and we (regrettably) know today as World War I. President Woodrow Wilson issued a message proclaiming the first commemoration of “Armistice Day.” The holiday was meant to show “gratitude for victory” in World War I and solemn pride “for those that died in our country’s service.” On that day, all business was suspended for two minutes starting at 11:00 a.m., and parades and public gatherings commemorated the war’s end. The choice of time was deliberate. The agreement ending World War I went into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

Over the years, the practice of celebrating Armistice Day spread and states began making it a legal holiday. Congress followed suit in 1938, declaring that the November 11 holiday was “dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.’” In 1954, with World War II and the Korean War having greatly expanded the number of Americans who had fought overseas, Congress renamed Armistice Day “Veterans Day.” In a proclamation marking the renamed holiday, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said the change “expanded the significance of the commemoration” by “paying homage to the veterans of all wars.”

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You might wonder why the holiday is spelled “Veterans Day” and not “Veteran’s Day.” The choice is deliberate. The Department of Veterans Affairs states that the apostrophe is unnecessary "because it is not a day that ‘belongs’ to veterans, it is a day for honoring all veterans."

You might also wonder how Veterans Day differs from Memorial Day other than coming after summer’s end rather than near its start. Veterans Day honors everyone who has served in the U.S. military. Memorial Day pays tribute to those men and women who died in military service.

Roughly 18 million, or 7 percent of, adult-aged Americans are veterans. That number is down from 28 million in 1990, which reflects the passing of the World War II and Korean War generations and the shift to an all-volunteer military. Less than a quarter of a million of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive today. About half a million of the nearly 7 million Americans who served in Korea are still alive.  

Women account for 2 million, or slightly more than 10 percent, of all veterans. While the overall number of veterans is shrinking by 1.5 percent annually, the number of women veterans is increasing by roughly 1 percent per year. If those trends continue, women will account for nearly 16 percent of the veteran population in two decades. Women veterans are on the whole younger than male veterans. Sixty-five is the median age for male veterans, while fifty-one is the median age for women veterans.

The price of service in the U.S. military can be high. More than 1.1 million American service members have died in the country’s wars. The Civil War remains the deadliest of America’s wars, with estimates of the death toll ranging from 500,000 to 750,000. World War II is the second deadliest conflict, with 405,000 Americans killed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq left 2,325 and 4,418 and servicemen and women dead respectively. Some 4.7 million veterans today have a service-connected disability.

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To all of America’s veterans, thank you for your service.

Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.