To understand Veterans Day, it’s important to know the history behind the holiday. After the incredible destruction of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day in 1919 to commemorate the cessation of fighting in this “war to end all wars.” His choice of November 11th is significant – President Wilson chose to commemorate the date when fighting stopped, not the day when the Treaty of Versailles was actually signed.
In other words, Armistice Day was not created to honor a political resolution between competing states, but rather the day that the human beings in the trenches were no longer exposed to the daily horrors of perpetual combat. November 11, 1918 was the first day in years where many began to believe they might survive the nightmare and one day return to their homes and families. Armistice Day was specifically set aside to honor the people who fought for what was believed to be a new era in a world without human conflict.
War, of course, had other plans. Following the Second World War and the Korean War, Armistice Day was officially changed to Veterans Day, and expanded to honor all veterans who have served during all American conflicts.
It is important here to bear in mind the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day (observed in May). While Veterans Day honors those who answered the call to serve our country, Memorial Day honors those who gave their lives in that service. For me, Veterans Day is when I drink beer and swap (exaggerated) stories with other veterans – Memorial Day is when I give a silent prayer for my friends who didn’t come home to their families left behind.
In the tradition of the original Armistice Day, Veterans Day is designed to honor the veterans walking among us who returned home to a nation that was safer because of their service. It’s a day of optimism, of reunion, of purpose, and of continued service. On Veterans Day, I take time to remind myself of the amazing men and women I’ve had the honor of serving alongside, and to reflect on all the incredible things their military experience has enabled them to accomplish (both in and out of uniform).
So how can you honor veterans this Veterans Day? A lot of people ask me if hearing “thank you for your service” gets old or sounds trite after a while. It doesn’t, but I think people ask me that because those words feel somehow insufficient when you say them.
Here’s a better way: ask a veteran about his or her service. This is incredibly important not just for veterans who need to share our stories, but also for our society as a whole to understand why people volunteer to serve our country, and what that service means.
Eli Feret is a first-year MBA student. Eli graduated from West Point in 2009 and served as a U.S. Army Infantry officer through 2016.