The eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month.
It is a date and time that should immediately resonate with all Americans, one that school children should know and recognize.
Unfortunately, it is not.
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the pact was signed that brought an end to World War I, and for the next 35 years the nation celebrated that moment as Armistice Day, even as other countries around the world held their own celebrations to mark the end of a war that claimed some 20 million lives.
President Dwight Eisenhower, who won military acclaim in World War II, renamed the national holiday to Veterans Day in 1954 so as to recognize all those who served in the nation’s military, regardless of when or how.
In 1971, Congress moved the holiday to the fourth Monday of October to make it more consistent with other national holidays, but President Gerald Ford, four years later, returned the recognition to Nov. 11 because of the significance of the original date.
We will pause on Thursday to again honor all the men and women who have donned the uniform of the military in service to their country. Our debt to them is one that can never be repaid by a single national holiday.
Too often when we think of honoring the military our thoughts turn to recognizing those who sacrificed their lives for their country, the nobility of which is recognized by the annual observance of Memorial Day in May.
But this month’s recognition is for all who have served, from the highest generals to the lowest grunts, for every man and woman who enlisted knowing that doing so may take them into battle.
All who have served. All who still serve. Millions of women and men through the years serving so that many millions more do not have to do so.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were about 26.4 million total veterans alive in the United States in 2000, with the number dropping to roughly 18 million by 2018. The number of those on active duty has remained fairly steady at about 1.4 million for the last two decades.
The sharp decline in total numbers reflects the downsizing of the military in recent years, as well as the rapidly declining number of living veterans from World War II. The 2018 estimate showed the number of WWII veterans declining from 5.7 million in 2000 to fewer than half a million eight years later.
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World War II was a defining moment for the building of the American military. In 1940, just prior to the war’s outbreak, there were about half a million military personnel serving the country. By 1945, their numbers had increased to more than 12 million. In 1950, veterans accounted for more than one-third of the nation’s entire male population.
Today, the largest single group of veterans belong to the Vietnam era of 1964-1975. That contingent contained some 6.3 million veterans at the time of the 2018 report.
Women currently comprise about 9% of the total number of U.S. veterans, though that number is expected to be around 17% by 2040.
Unfortunately, despite the tremendous debt owed to those who have served in our armed forces, veterans have not always been treated as they should have been after leaving the service.
Though improved in recent years, medical care available through the Veterans Administration is not near the quality deserved by those who have earned it. And the number of veterans who are homeless is a sad commentary on our national priorities, though that, too, is improving.
A Department of Housing and Urban Development report to Congress projected that the number of homeless veterans in 2019 topped 37,000, though the same study showed a 50% improvement in that number form the status in 2010.
Some states and communities have been proactive in trying to find solutions to the problem of homelessness for veterans, yet many remain living on the streets and in the woods. Whatever the number, it is too many for a nation that owes so much to those who served in order to protect a way of life we are guilty of taking for granted far too often.
We can and should do better.
At the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, we will pause to celebrate the American veteran. As a nation, it is the least we can do for those who have done so much, for so many.