The day after Veterans Day

Published 10:00 pm Friday, November 11, 2016

This November 11th, Americans will pause for salutes to our veterans who have fought for this nation, a brief, honorific moment punctuated by parades, speeches, and moving renditions of patriotic songs from an amphitheater in Washington, D.C.  In countless small towns like those in the foothills, an annual parade will personify that same impermanent patriotic spirit only too well.

Yet we should contrast this shining, seasonal celebration with our historical record of dismissing and marginalizing veterans and our venerated dead the day after we celebrate them. On November 12th, 22 veterans will commit suicide while thousands more will seek homeless shelters. Don’t even ask about unemployment, divorce, or PTSD rates.

In truth, America has had only one glorious and completely virtuous veteran’s day, that of June 22nd, 1944, when a churlish Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill of Rights. Earlier, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, Roosevelt vetoed a small cash bonus for WWI veterans who made only $1 a day, declaring that, “no person, because he wore a uniform, must . . . be placed in a special class of beneficiaries,” an unexpressed sentiment probably held by a great many elected officials, perhaps even some here in Polk County.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

As I suspect of many veterans who prefer anonymity, I do not participate in parades and memorial services inasmuch as, since 9/11, “professional veterans,” a great many career officers and NCOs, have come to dominate and use them as honorific selfies.

Then, too, Veterans Day often serves as a photo op for politicians, increasingly another professional class, to feign sympathy even as they vote against their interests. On the national level, that’s Congress and Barack Obama while our President-elect, Donald Trump, railed against a VA system that’s been broken for decades, not a high priority for him while he builds a wall and tears up a lot of treaties. Moreover, patriotism, once above party factions, has become as politicized as the nation itself.

Instead, since 1944 every cowardly administration has beaten a steady retreat from that moment. Regardless of whether there has been a draft or not, whether wars are just or not, or whether they are ended or endless, our nation’s leaders have treated veterans as useful if blunt instruments of authority that can be discarded afterward.

So selfish has this nation been toward its veterans that any subsequent, small blessing like the 1967 Vietnam Veteran’s Act should be considered a capricious gift and not enlightened policy. Even then, the 1967 Act raised eligibility requirements, restricted assistance, and tightened changes from the Korean War. 

As a returning veteran enrolled at the University of Georgia, I spent an entire year getting through endless red tape all the while enduring an insulting veteran’s affairs officer calling me a “baby killer” before I received my first check. California reservists today would also understand the perfidy of veterans’ treatment.

Yet, like Franklin Roosevelt, I do not think that putting on a uniform necessarily made me a better citizen, gave me a distinct virtue, or entitled me as a special class of beneficiary. Many who never did have served this nation equally if not better. I don’t even need a parade or a monument to my service in Washington, D. C., a city fast becoming one of war memorials like imperial Rome, an outcome that surely would embarrass our Founding Fathers.

Instead, let’s treat all our veterans as if they are part of a “greatest generation” regardless of the time or war in which they served and celebrate them for who they are, Americans all.

Remember them after November 11th, at Thanksgiving, at Christmas, and on every day afterward for the precious gift they gave us all. The spirit of the 1944 GI Bill should be for all veterans all the time.    

Milton Ready, Tryon, N.C.