One century ago, one year after the carnage of the First World War had ceased, President Woodrow Wilson declared a national holiday, Armistice Day, to honor those who had served. In a proclamation to the nation, Wilson wrote:
“To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service, and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations."
There was, in that era and in that statement, so much hope that the war just ended would be the final lesson that brought lasting peace, that freedom and democracy and enlightenment would become the rule rather than the exception. There was a belief that the specter of soldiers killed and crippled and haunted was passing, and families and communities would no longer be torn asunder by battle and absence and loss.
Then came World War II and the Korean War, and in 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name of the observance to Veterans Day to honor those who served in all wars, and in peace.
Vietnam followed, the last U.S. conflict fought by a conscripted army.
The nation's longest war, in the Middle East and against terrorism, has been an all-volunteer endeavor that still grinds on and feels like it might always. And there have been smaller conflicts all over the world that barely exist in the memories of many Americans, like Panama and Kosovo and Bosnia and Grenada, but had lasting impacts on the Americans who were sent there.
There are about 20 million veterans in the United States, and approximately 110,000 on Long Island. Many are prosperous and healthy, largely undamaged by their service or fully recovered from their experiences. But others operate under tremendous physical and emotional burdens of wounds and psychic scars, addiction and rage, post-traumatic stress disorder and an inability to find their footing in the civilian world.
On average, 20 American veterans take their own lives each day, and the rate of suicides among veterans ages 18 to 29 is six times the national average. Nassau officials say as many as 5,000 in that county are homeless or have insecure housing arrangements. In Suffolk, the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, once considered a treasure of the VA system by those who used it, has fallen into a frustrating cycle of disrepair, neglect, mismanagement and dissatisfaction.
They call enlisting in the military "signing up," because those who do so enter into a contract with the nation. Young men and women agree to serve with honor, and in exchange the nation promises to honor their service.
To live up to that agreement, our nation's leaders must make certain that troops are never committed to conflicts and causes where American force is not helpful, merited and required. And our nation must make certain our troops' needs are met while they serve — and once they are finished. — The editorial board