Today is Veterans Day in the US. This is the day set aside to honor military veterans. The day was originally called Armistice Day, because November 11, 1918 at 11:11 AM soldiers laid down their arms and hostilities were suspended. It wasn’t until 1926 that Congress officially recognized the end of World War One. Part of that resolution included this passage: Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations. In 1954 after World War Two and the Korean War, the day was renamed Veterans Day. I come from a very long line of veterans. My ancestors fought in countless wars and battles. From the veterans in my life I learned the sacred value of PEACE. Peace is the precious gift they paid for with their youthful vigor. “We won the Peace” one of my uncles said once at a family gathering. All my battle-scared uncles, my dad and their wives paused for a moment of silence before raising their glasses to peace.
I never got to know my mom’s father. He was a veteran of the trench warfare of WWI – the war to end all wars. During the war, he was hit with poison gas several times. After the war he was a sharecropper and coal miner. My mother told me, in lieu of government military payments, they had WWI vets sell Buddy Bars – candy bars. They were paid a commission on the candy they could sell. Such a thing would be inconceivable now. This treasured “Buddy” hat is one of the few items I have from my grandfather. My mom told me during the Great Depression my warmhearted grandfather always kept a pot of ham and beans on the stove, in case he saw someone in need. When a neighborhood child was stricken with spinal meningitis, my grandfather drove him to a distant hospital. Afterwards, he caught the terrible disease and died. He had sacrificed himself for a child. My twelve year old mom had to leave school and go to work in a laundry to help support her family. To the day she died,she hated the song “Taps” which is played at veterans’ funerals.
Veterans have not always been well taken care of. After World War One the families of the vast majority of WWI vets were in desperate need. For instance, the government passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act in 1924 which would not be paid until 1945. As the Great Depression wore on, a group of tens of thousands of veterans and their families marched on Washington in July 1932. Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Army, they demanded payment of their promised compensation. The payment of a veteran “bonus” went back to America’s founding in 1776. At the end of the Revolutionary War in 1781, the Army was disbanded. In 1783 the government still hadn’t paid the veterans bonuses (land and cash). A group of veterans marched on the Philadelphia (the capital at the time). The Congress fled and sent in the Army to expel the protesters. The same thing happened to the so-called “Bonus Army”.
Republicans in the US Senate voted down a bill to pay out the promised bonus. President Hoover ordered the Secretary of War to disperse the peaceful protesters. Soldiers pushed out the unarmed veterans. When the vets tried to re-enter their encampment, local police shot and killed two of them -William Hushka and Eric Carlson. Both these men are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The protesters fled across the river. Hoover ordered the Army to stand down, but their commander Douglas MacArthur disobeyed. MacArthur’s infantry joined up with the cavalry, and six tanks commanded by George Patton. They formed up on Pennsylvania Avenue. The veterans thought the military was there to support them and cheered the troops, until Patton ordered his men to charge the vets. The infantry fixed bayonets and used tear gas to evict the vets and their families. The President ordered them to stop several times. Despite his aid, Dwight Eisenhower advising against it, MacArthur ignored the orders again and charged across the river. Many people were injured in that attack which pushed the vets out of Washington.
Hoover lost the election. Roosevelt opposed the veteran’s payments. Veterans returned in May 1933. Roosevelt greeted them warmly, and his wife, on her own, met with the vets. Later, President Roosevelt issued an executive order allowing for 25,000 vets to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. Later, in 1936, a Democrat controlled Congress passed a bill authorizing the payment of $2 billion in WWI bonuses. Roosevelt vetoed the bill and Congress overrode the veto. In the end, the veterans had finally won the peace they had sought. But as we know, that peace was short lived. I am sure my twelve year old father did not know at the time, he would have his once peaceful world torn shattered just after graduating high school.
On November 11, 1921 the Tomb of the Unknown Solider was dedicated in Arlington National Cemetery. On Veterans Day the President will lay a wreath at the Tomb. The inscription reads: “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.” We must honor our veterans. They sacrifice so much in the service of their country. But veterans would tell you, their cherished dream is for peace. Many of my family are buried in military cemeteries. I grew up listening to their stories, but it is their spouses who loved them, and soothed their nightmares. My parents were reunited in death, as they share the same grave now. We must always remember, some vets, like my Dad, were haunted by the hellish horror of war their entire lives. Never forget the cause for which our brave veterans put it all on the line – PEACE.