Tomorrow 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 celebration 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 announcing the renamed holiday, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said the change was intended to “expand the significance of the commemoration” by “paying homage to the veterans of all its wars.”
You might be wondering why the holiday is spelled “Veterans Day” and not “Veteran’s Day.” The choice is deliberate. The Department of Veteran 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 16 million Americans are veterans. That number is down from 28 million in 1990, which reflects the passing of the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam generations, and the shift to an all-volunteer military. Fewer than 120,000 of the 16.1 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive today. Nearly 7 million men and women served during the Korean War. Fewer than 1.4 million Korean War veterans remain alive today, less than 31,000 of which are women. Roughly 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam between 1964 and 1975, of whom less than 850,000 are still alive.
The price of service in the U.S. military can be high. More than 1.1 million American service members have died during wartime. The Civil War remains the deadliest of America’s wars, with estimates of the death toll of 620,000. World War II is the second deadliest conflict, with 405,000 Americans killed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq left 2,350 and 4,418 servicemen and women dead, respectively. Some 4.9 million veterans today have a service-connected disability.
To all of America’s veterans, thank you for your service.
Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.