Friday, November 11, 2016

The Meanings of Veterans Day

A week ago I gave a presentation on Veterans Day to a group of 7th graders at local Middle School. Here it is. (Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age.) 

Veterans Day is often confused with Memorial Day.  Memorial Day was established after the Civil War to commemorate those who died in the defense of the United States.  An estimated 1.1 million Americans have died in all wars, from the War for American Independence down to the present day.


In contrast, Veterans Day honors all Americans who have served in the armed forces.  We know that about 42 million Americans have served in wars.  We are not as sure about Americans who have served only in peacetime.  One estimate places that number at 15 million, yielding a total of 57 million in all.

This includes two types of veterans:  those who served on active duty in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard;  and those who served in the National Guard or Reserves.  The latter are part-time service personnel who may be called up for active duty.  At Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion, for example, the 29th Infantry Division, composed of National Guardsmen from Virginia and Maryland, fought and died alongside the Regular Army’s First Infantry Division.  In fact most of the US Army is composed of National Guard and Reserves, and thousands have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  At one point, for example, every unit in the North Carolina National Guard was deployed overseas.

So when we honor veterans we are honoring different kinds of service, from this woman who lost a leg in combat in Iraq…

… to this man whose only service involved Initial Active Duty Training (15 weeks), followed by eight years of one weekend drill per month and 16 days of annual training each summer.  “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

[Note: Incidentally, that's me, and I recently learned by certain standards I am not, in fact, actually considered to be a veteran.]

All veterans are eligible for government benefits The US Department of Veterans Affairs provides a wide variety of benefits, for example:  educational assistance (GI Bill), health care, assisted living, home loans, insurance, and burial and memorial services, for retired or separated United States armed forces personnel, their dependents, and survivors.  These benefits vary according to length and type of service.  Personnel who have served 20 years are eligible for retirement payments, with the amount determined according to the highest rank attained.

 VA Medical Center, Chillicothe, Ohio

Those who served in the active military service and were separated under any condition other than dishonorable may qualify for VA health care benefits. The same is true for current and former members of the Reserves or National Guard who were called to active duty by a federal order and completed the full period for which they were called or ordered to active duty.

Reserves or National Guard members with active duty for training purposes only do not meet the basic eligibility requirement.  This is also the case for military burial benefits, which requires at least 24 months of continuous active duty service.  The only exception is for Reserve or National Guard members who died in incidents such a training accidents.

However, all honorably discharged veterans, including Reserve and National Guard veterans who completed their six year service obligation, are entitled to some benefits, most notably VA Homeowner loans, which allow veterans to purchase homes, or refinance homes, more easily because their homeowner loans are guaranteed by the US government.  This makes VA loans more attractive to banks.

Veterans also receive support in other ways.  Many veterans join organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.  This allows them to celebrate the shared experience of military and promote camaraderie.  Most military veterans regard their service as something special and it can be an important part of their identity.

Some veterans experience difficulty after leaving military service—stress of returning to civilian life, loss of camaraderie and identity.  Each day an estimated 22 veterans take their own lives.  This veteran, George Eshleman, is part of the Uniform Warrior Foundation, which calls public attention to this issue, in Eshleman's case by walking the entire Appalachian Trail carrying the names of dozens of veterans who have taken their own lives.

Why should we honor veterans?  They currently represent only 7 percent of all Americans, and out of our current our current national population--about 300 million people.  Of this number, 192 million Americans 18-65 and thus roughly the number representing Americans of military age. Of these, 1.4 million currently serve in the Active Duty armed forces; another 880,000 serve in the reserve components.  Thus, only about 1 percent of the US population of military age currently serves in the US military.

This means that for 99 percent of Americans of military age, the privileges of citizenship are essentially unearned.   That is to say, 99 percent of Americans have made no sacrifice on behalf of the nation, excluding a relatively small number of citizens who serve in AmeriCorps (800,000), Volunteers in Service to America (8,000), and the Peace Corps (6,600).  Other Americans do serve in other ways; for example, various forms of community volunteer service.

This has implications for the health of our republic.  Historically, republics are fragile.  Most republics have either not survived at all—the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire--or have survived in name only:  Russia has increasingly fallen into this category.  Because the health of a republic depends on civic virtue—the willingness of citizens to look beyond their own self-interest and consider the good of the country as a whole. 

Without enough citizens who take the responsibilities of citizenship seriously, the republic cannot survive.  At any given time, the US republic is one generation removed from potential extinction. 

Military veterans are one major group of citizens who, by their service, have demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice on behalf of the republic.  In that sense, they are one of the main guarantors that the republic will survive.

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