On Monday, Nov. 11, our nation will pause to honor the men and women who have taken a sacred oath to protect America by either land, sea or air, in times of war or peace, as active or formerly active members of the armed forces. Federal workplaces, post offices, banks — even a few public schools — will be closed for Veterans Day (originally called Armistice Day) as America offers its gratitude to living veterans for their service and sacrifices.
In many cities, there will be plenty of pomp and circumstance as high-stepping drum majors lead marching bands in patriotic expressions during parades and programs amidst backgrounds of red, white and blue in a tradition that became a national, annually-observed holiday in 1938.
However, despite the usual proliferation of Betsy Ross-inspired flags fluttering in the wind and sopranos articulating the words of our national anthem, history shows that we haven’t always treated our veterans with the kind of respect they’ve earned and deserve.
Black vets returning home after World War I were often attacked, harassed, asked to show their “tails” and forced to accept second-class citizenship, despite having put their very lives on the line for their country. Asian Americans faced similar injustices after serving in World War II and coming back to the U.S. As for veterans of the Vietnam War, they would be regarded as pariahs — unfortunate pawns caught in the middle of political fallout that came both during and decades after a war that millions of Americans neither wanted or condoned.
And while well-meaning expressions like “thanks for your service” are undoubtedly appropriate, today’s veterans deserve and need a lot more than conciliatory phrases as they seek to assimilate back into civilian life. Many face hurdles that seem all but insurmountable including higher than national average rates of unemployment, homelessness and suicide — 20 veterans on average take their own lives each day.
In addition, disability rates are higher among veterans with an estimated 29 percent of recent vets facing a variety of service-related disabilities: missing limbs, burns, spinal cord injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing loss and traumatic brain injuries.
We may never be able to fully understand their pain, physical or emotional, the acute sense of loneliness and isolation that afflicts those plagued by PSTD or who were once prisoners of war or the added pressure that overwhelms those vets who had prior mental health challenges even before their years of service. But we can make sure they receive adequate support and services that will make their lives more manageable and meaningful.
Saying “thanks for your service” may be a fitting beginning but it simply is not enough.