Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day 2009 by Jim Thomas

This one strikes closest to home. More so even than the debt the nation owes our veterans, I owe two vets, my parents, for my existence and for inspiring my accomplishments. Veterans Day, thankfully, is generally well-observed, with many personal and societal ceremonies and tributes, even if it is not a day-off for many. That military service is a sacrifice borne by few for the benefit of many is all too clear this year. So, as legal holidays go, we seem to do right by Veterans Day; I'm more concerned about the other 364 days, but first the legal history.

Originally Armistice Day, the 11th day of the 11th month, commemorated the end of the Great War, the "war to end all wars" (was there ever a slogan you more wanted to be true?), and honored those who served in it. After World War II, which forced us to drop the slogan and recognize the Great War as World War I, and then the Korean "Conflict" (legal semantics for political purposes), Congress, in 1954, seeing the need to honor all who serve, gave the holiday its present name, Veterans Day.

Congress did a major disservice to Veterans Day when, in 1971, it separated the holiday from its roots by moving the observance to the 4th Monday in October. The American people tolerated that for only a few years and the original date was restored in 1978. But if "we must keep our covenant with them" as President Obama proclaims, then Veterans Day must be a year-long commitment.

I mentioned my parents both served. They enlisted, as many Americans do, as recent high school graduates. I am particularly indebted to an unknown designer of recruiting posters. My mother marched into the recruiting office fully intending to join the Navy, but an Air Force poster showing young people at the Eiffel Tower changed her mind. The poster was prophetic. My parents would have their first date in Paris, France.

So it was that I and my three siblings would grow-up on and around Air Force bases. So it also was that we would see our parents each earn a Bachelor's and then a Master's Degree as beneficiaries of the GI Bill. "The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944," otherwise known at the GI Bill or the GI Bill of Rights, not only carried out the covenant between this nation and its defenders, it transformed my family as it transformed the nation. Home-ownership and college lay beyond the grasp, both economically and psychologically, of much America before the GI Bill; after, everything changed.

On a recent walk around Denver's Fort Logan National Cemetery, I am struck, not by the lives cut short by war, a tragic consequence of military service, but by the long lives of many who served and the great blessings they brought to us. I imagine them, like my parents, young people who leveraged their country's investment in them to transform America. Veterans raise expectations, not just for themselves, but for their children and their children's children, and, in the process, for us all. I imagine the Fort Logan vets as entrepreneurs, teachers, police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, builders, engineers, and even lawyers. I imagine them as mothers and fathers. I see the life you and I live as defended and enabled by their ideals.

Our covenant with our vets, like all agreements, needs to be kept current. The GI Bill has been updated a few times and as recently as 2008, but still we struggle. One-third of America's homeless men are veterans. The economy facing discharged servicemen and women today is all too similar to that facing the World War I veterans whose political and literal battles with our government inspired that first GI Bill. If our investment in that "bonus army" gave birth to a transformed America, we should expect that doing our best for our modern heroes will prove more essential to our current economic reformations than any business bailout. Besides, it is the right thing to do.

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