Why do we celebrate Veterans Day? As any alert history student knows, the holiday we know by that name began as Armistice Day, when the Treaty of Versailles took effect in 1918 to mark the end of World War I, known then as The Great War and the War to End All Wars. The observance was timed to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month; hence Nov. 11, today.
Of course, we know World War I was not the war to end all wars but just the start of a century rife with warfare. That punitive treaty led to the rise of fascism in Germany and World War II. The end of that war begat the Cold War, made hot by bullet-drenched "police actions" in Korea and Vietnam. Later, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East ignited our current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All told, the wars of the past century have claimed the lives of two-thirds of a million American service members. More than a million others returned with physical wounds, many more with psychological scars slow to heal, if ever. All who served gave more than anyone can give to a cause, a country and a people.
And though we agree on the holiday's significance, it helps to put a face on that sacrifice, if only to bring it better into focus. That face for many in our community belongs to a young man named Channing Moss.
Most of you know his story. A West Hall High graduate, he joined the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan, an ongoing front against terrorism in the Mideast. On March 16, 2006, his convoy came under attack and a rocket-propelled grenade entered Moss' Humvee.
The good news is that the RPG didn't detonate or all in the vehicle would have been killed. The bad news for Moss is that the thing impaled his hip and had to be carefully removed. His injuries led to five rounds of surgery and a year and a half of rehab.
Now Spc. Moss is doing well, with a loyal wife and two precious daughters to ease his pain. He and returned home for a visit last weekend, when he was honored by the city of Oakwood for his service. The weight room at West Hall was named for him. Football players, teachers and other folks in the community turned out to greet him.
In his speech to students at West Hall Middle School that day, Moss told the story of a young man who, like many, rebelled, cut classes and didn't always make the right choices. But after he joined the service to provide for his family, he became a soldier, a patriot and a man. He shared that story with an eloquence that still echoes a week later:
"This is the real reason I joined the military right here," Moss said of daughter Yuliana, 3. "When I chose to become a man and stand up for my oldest daughter ... She needed everything I had to provide for her, and I knew the military would be my steppingstone."
"I messed up... I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be a part of hip hop, but I got it together. You can make mistake, but it's the key decisions in life that affect your outcome."
"One day, I needed to make a key decision in my life to become an adult. Not a young adult anymore, but an adult."
"Get your heads together. You're going to be in my shoes, your parents shoes one day, so listen to them."
"Be a living example of you can do it, you can make it. Whatever your goal is ... don't give up on yourselves."
The next day, a group of local folks who call themselves the Girly-Man Coffee Club donated $21,000 to Moss to help his family with expenses. Again, hearts poured out to this special young man, and the hugs given to him and returned in kind -- he must have hugged everyone in town over two days -- were warm and heartfelt.
We celebrate so many people in our lives. Star athletes are envied, entertainment stars are admired, even the occasional politician earns our adulation. But send a young man from our schools and neighborhoods to combat, then bring him home, and you see a kind of love that's hard to match. That's the kind of love given to Channing Moss, and returned in kind, last weekend. For this community, right now, he is the face and voice of Veterans Day.
Perhaps it's because we know that these young men and women who serve, just as generations before, are the best of us. Whatever their background, they exude a sincerity of patriotism that leaves us in awe. Like Moss, some goofed off in school and gave their parents and teachers fits. But when it came time to dedicate themselves to a greater good, they were first in line.
And so we honor them. We give them plaques and checks, we erect memorial gardens in their honor, we schedule parades and ceremonies to shout their names aloud, because we can't let their sacrifice go unnoticed. We know how special they are, from the Channing Mosses who serve today, to the grizzled vets of Vietnam and Korea and the elderly heroes of Europe and the Pacific.
Today, we celebrate not just the service of those who wore the uniform, but the fact that they stood, and still stand, as the very best America has to offer. They embody all we believe is good about our society, sent abroad to serve as our emissaries around the globe and battle our common enemies. Some don't come back and become martyred heroes for all time. Those who do return often are changed, not always for the better, yet to a nation that itself is made better because they took that fateful step.
It's hard to express the full scale of our gratitude to them. We can only try, in whatever way possible, to sum it up in everyday gestures: The salutes, the parades, the flags. The moist-eyed embraces and the sincere thanks.
That, you see, is why we celebrate Veterans Day. And why we always will.