By Joe Ragonese
To honor those who served, Armistice Day was transformed into Veteran’s Day in 1926. It was a time where the war to end wars was fresh in the minds of many and a time where patriotism was felt by all. Americans loved their veterans then, and the day was celebrated across the nation with parades and festivities with only one purpose, to honor those who served.
Organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars set about to remind all Americans why they needed to honor those who have served. Newspapers proudly proclaimed the day as one of remembrance for our honored veterans and were not shy about being patriotic and proud Americans.
As a young man growing up through the 1950s, I watched those parades and read all the patriotic prose written by people who truly honored those who served. Seeing those veterans marching down the street in their uniforms I knew that I wanted to be one of them. To that end, I joined the service right out of high school.
For four years I served in the United States Air Force on active duty and then two more in the reserves. I worked in a Combat Alert Center as an air traffic controller, where I directed American fighter aircraft toward enemy aircraft. It was an exciting job and one of the most important things that I have ever done in my life. There is a sense of accomplishment that comes from having served honorably to protect our nation against its enemies.
My time in the service gave me the confidence to try new and different things, as well as provided me with leadership skills that I still use to this day. When I joined the Air Force, there was an active draft for every fit male over the age of 18. Usually one was drafted when they turned 21, but at 18, fresh out of high school, only months away from entering my freshman year of college, I raised my right hand and enlisted.
I enlisted because I felt a sense of patriotism that had been instilled in me all of those 18 years. Every adult male in my family proudly fought in World War II, and some of my older cousins in Korea. I grew up listening to stories of exotic and far-away places, rarely hearing about the horrors they endured. It wasn’t until I was discharged that I first began hearing about what war was like to my father and uncles. It wasn’t always pleasant; which is why for many of my formative years, much of our family free time activity revolved around our local VFW hall. Growing up as a Roman Catholic, on Friday’s we fasted and did not eat meat, instead, we had to eat fish. On most Friday’s we ended up at the local VFW hall where we ate fish fries or baked clams.
To this day I miss those clam bakes. They would be served in mesh nets, filled with a dozen clams and an ear of corn. It was here, sitting quietly and drinking a root beer that I would listen to the vets whisper about being afraid or how it hurts when a bullet breaks a bone or shrapnel cuts deeply into the torso. It was my first glimpse of war.
These were brave men who acted honorably in the face of death. The VFW was the place that veterans went to try to talk out their war with others who shared like experiences. Those talking about their war experience would always turn away from the kid sitting at the bar sipping his Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer, as he tried desperately to hear what war was really like.
Some of the vets were missing eyes, legs, arms or had scars from head to toe, but all hid their feelings from the kid at the bar. One of my uncles had joined the Marines because he wanted to fight with the best. He came home after campaigns in Guadalcanal and Peleliu, but was never again the same. Out of all those who served in my family, he was the most affected, and carried no physical scars that one could see, but internal ones that he dared never to reveal.
I never once heard him speak about the war, but the rest of his life was spent trying to forget what he had gone through. Growing up in the wake of the greatest war since the Civil War, I learned a great respect for what these men and women had gone through. That respect turned into unabashed patriotism and a desire to serve in our armed forces like they had done. When I enlisted it wasn’t because I thought it was my duty, rather I felt it my privilege to be able to do so.
Veterans Day is to honor every veteran of ever war, as well as those who served between wars. The bond that veterans have is unlike any other. Men and women who have worn the uniform are different than those who have not. They are more disciplined, more focused and better trained to handle whatever obstacle, or opportunity that presents itself, more than those who have not.
As I grew up in the 1950s, almost every adult male in America had been a veteran, or one questioned why you weren’t. Over 10% of our population had served; a huge number. The draft kept that number high for many years afterwards, upwards of 4% of the adult male population having served.
In those days service was honored by almost everyone, until Vietnam. And then everything changed. This is not the time to go into the disrespect shown to returning servicemen and women during those days, but today’s disrespect for our military had its beginnings in those abusive days during the Vietnam war.
Back when I was growing up, everyone knew a veteran; when I was discharged, a large number of us were veterans and many knew vets or active duty service members, but no where near the numbers after WWII. The draft ended after the Vietnam War, again lowering the numbers who had served. When the troops returned home, victorious, from Gulf War I, the number of those who served began to decline rapidly. Due to Clinton’s decimation of the greatest military in the world, the numbers of servicemen and women declined to around 1% of the population, where it is today.
What that means is that today almost no one knows an active duty service member or a veteran. That makes Veterans Day more important than ever to remind those who do not know or have never met a veteran, of the sacrifice made by those who honor duty, service to country and the traditions that made America the greatest nation in the world in the first place.
Ever since Veterans Day was begun on November 11, 1919, in honor of the Armistice of World War I, it has been an an important day to remind everyone about those who have served across this land and who gave them their freedom to protest, to act stupidly, to speak openly against a sitting President, to own a semi-automatic rifle, to go to church on Sunday or Synagogue on Friday, or Mosque, or almost anything we do in our daily lives.
All those rights that we take for granted stem from those who put on the uniform and face what you fear head on. Men and women who willingly confront armed belligerents whose only desire is to kill them. They go, willingly, day after day, into harm’s way so that the rest of us can take our lives for granted.
Without those who serve, and those who have served, our daily lives would be a hellish nightmare where despots and tyrants would control our every thought and action; yes, just like Obama tried to do and Hillary wanted to complete.
Veterans Day is to honor the men and women who make freedom free, often at the cost of their own blood, sweat and tears. To me Veterans Day is the most important holiday of the year, because without the blood and sacrifice of those who have served, America would not be the home of the brave and land of the free.
On November 11, go out of your way to thank a veteran; I know that I will.