Remembering and celebrating veterans

Veterans Day is a federal holiday and a state holiday in all states except Wisconsin. The federal holiday is observed on November 11 or the weekday closest to November 11, if November 11 falls on a weekend. In most states, it is also observed on the weekday nearest to November 11. The holiday honors all US veterans of all branches of the armed forces.

Local governments, schools and businesses are not required to close. Most remain open. Traditionally, a moment of silence is observed at 11 AM on November 11, which is the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. This time commemorates the cease-fire in the 1918 armistice.

Henry Gunther of Baltimore was the last soldier killed in action in World War I, and he was killed 60 seconds before the armistice came into effect. He was charging German troops, who knew that the Armistice was imminent. President Wilson in 1919 first proclaimed Nov. 11 as a day of recognition for veterans of the Great War (WWI). In May of 1938, Nov. 11 of each year was declared a legal holiday and was called Armistice Day.

In 1953, Al King, a shoe store owner, campaigned to have the day celebrate all veterans, not just those who served in World War 1 and suggested it should be renamed ‘All’ Veterans Day. His local Chamber of Commerce agreed, and a local congressman helped push a bill for the holiday through Congress. President Eisenhower signed it into law and in May 1954, Congress amended the law and officially replaced ‘Armistice’ with ‘Veterans.’

In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act initially applied to Veterans Day as well, stipulating that the federal holiday should be observed on the fourth Monday of October. However, Veterans groups opposed the change, and most states kept their Veterans Day commemorations on November 11th. In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed a law that moved the holiday back to November 11th.

I remember a June day on the coast of Normandy where American troops stormed the beaches. My students and I had been exploring the D-Day museum. I sat down to rest on a bench outside while they explored the actual beach. As I sat, a tiny lady approached me. She must have been 4’ 8” or less.

“I can practice my English avec vous?” she asked me.

“Mais bien sur! Of course,” I replied.

As we sat there in the bright sun not very many miles from the American cemetery, she spoke to me of her memories of the D-Day invasion, of her excitement and her fear.

“Afterwards, I was so relieved,” she sighed, “but my Jewish friends were not so lucky.” She wept as she told me of childhood friends she lost in a concentration camp. I lost many of the details as I listened to her broken English, but one statement came through all too clearly.

“I sit here every summer and talk to tourists, especially Americans, and tell my story. We must never forget. We must never let our children and grandchildren forget because they will. When my generation is gone, we who experienced the war, someone must remember lest it all happen again.”

Later, I remembered her words as I lay safely in my bed. Finally, I fell asleep and slept restlessly for a few hours before I drove to a doctor’s appointment in Brunswick. After the visit, my car took me straight to Books-a-Million and there on the first shelf, I saw it waiting for me—The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn. Rarely do I read non-fiction, but this book beckoned me. I spent the next several days poring over the author’s tale of his search for the stories of six relatives lost in the Holocaust. He wanted to know where they died, how they spent their days and nights, and with whom. He, like the little French lady, is concerned about disappearing stories. When people die, their stories die too, especially when their families and friends are gone.

Let us celebrate our veterans. Let us remember and remind our children and grandchildren who kept this country safe. After all, forgetting is such a dangerous thing for us to do.

And to repeat what Al Meadows, a veteran and our guest speaker at church this morning, said: If a veteran wants to tell you his story, listen. Don’t interrupt. Just listen.”