When asked to explain the meaning of Veterans Day and what it stands for, many Americans will mistakenly say that the annual November 11 holiday is a time to remember those who gave their lives defending our freedoms while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. That's actually the idea behind the Memorial Day holiday; Veterans Day is intended to celebrate and honor every soldier, present or past, living or dead, for his or her service in the military.
Our country takes great and deserved care of its honored soldiers. We, its citizens, who daily reap the benefits of the freedoms that so many brave men and women preserve and protect, should likewise take great and deliberate care to express our gratitude for their service and sacrifice. This article offers 10 meaningful ways you can honor a soldier, past or present, during the Veterans Day holiday.
A Brief History of Veterans Day
In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson designated November 11 as "Armistice Day" in order to commemorate the end of World War I -- which ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (literally 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918). In 1938, Armistice Day became an official U.S. holiday.
In 1954, however, after a second war had engulfed the world, as well as the Korean War soon after that, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In the official proclamation he issued, he stated that on November 11 each year:
...let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.
Knowing its importance and history now, here are 10 meaningful ways you can honor a soldier, past or present, during Veterans Day.
1. Give Thanks
A simple-yet-meaningful way you can honor the service and sacrifice of our troops is simply to express your sincere thanks and appreciation to the many military veterans still living, as well as anyone actively serving in the Armed Forces. Thus, whether he or she is a family member or a friend, or someone you encounter during a parade, a funeral or memorial service, in an airport or store, etc., please make a point of politely saying, "Thank you for your service!"
2. Give Back
Every year, more than 140,000 people just like you volunteer their time and talents, caring and compassion to help America's military heroes. From driving veterans to/from a local Veterans Affairs (VA) facility for an appointment to helping at a Welcome Home event, there are many opportunities for you to volunteer your time and talents to help area veterans.
In addition, you can donate cash to improve the comfort and welfare of veterans, as well as non-cash items, such as clothing and blankets, reading materials and prepaid calling cards. To discover how you can help, please visit the VA's Voluntary Service webpage.
3. Attend a Gathering
Every November 11, businesses and organizations, communities and cemeteries, and many others across the United States hold events honoring our troops, past and present, that you can attend. For example, many of the 131 national cemeteries operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hold ceremonies to honor veterans -- often at 11 a.m. local time. (See "A Brief History of Veterans Day" above to understand why.) You can check to see if your nearest national VA cemetery is holding such an event here. The VA also offers information about other Veterans Day events if you can't locate something within your community.
4. Help Others Gather
Roughly 16 million American men and women served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, and more than 400,000 of them paid the ultimate price during this global fight against tyranny. Unfortunately, it took more than 60 years to create a national memorial honoring their service, by which time many of the surviving veterans would likely never visit it due to health and/or financial reasons.
Retired Air Force Captain Earl Morse, a licensed pilot who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Ohio, did something about this by creating "Honor Flight." This non-profit organization flies WWII vets to the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, at absolutely no cost to the veterans. Through the end of 2012, Honor Flight has transported nearly 99,000 World War II veterans to the memorial. If you wish to honor a deceased veteran, consider making a financial contribution to Honor Flight, or even organizing a trip for military veterans in your area.
5. Create a Story
Every military veteran, regardless of branch of service or rank, lived a story that should never be forgotten. Hometown Heroes wants to collect all of these narratives, so share the story of a veteran you know. This website gathers user-submitted images and text to create a database of military veterans that visitors can search for by name, city/state, branch of service, era/year and other criteria. Best of all, it costs nothing to post a photograph and the basic information about a veteran's service record!
6. Create a Certificate
The men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedoms deserve the thanks of a grateful nation. Among the many ways our country shows its appreciation for these sacrifices is by providing burial and memorial benefits to current and former members of the U.S. Armed Forces. One such benefit is a Presidential Memorial Certificate, a free engraved-paper certificate signed by the current U.S. president. Framed or not, this impressive official document clearly conveys that both our country and the bearer appreciate the soldier's military service.
Author's note: While the application process is relatively easy, the wheels of government grind slowly so don't expect your certificate to arrive quickly. For example, after submitting the necessary paperwork in November 2012, it took more than three months before I received a Presidential Memorial Certificate honoring my grandfather for his service during World War II. That said, it's worth the wait but you should definitely order more than one certificate at a time (I ordered two) so you can give one to another family member or friend who would appreciate it.
7. School Yourself
As noted above, many Americans do not know or fully understand the meaning of the Veterans Day holiday, and too often confuse its purpose with that of Memorial Day. In order to honor the sacrifice and struggle of every U.S. soldier, living or dead, on November 11, take the time to make sure you understand why this special day of recognition and commemoration exists. First, watch this short video on the history and meaning of Veterans Day, which is narrated by U.S. Navy Petty Officer First Class Liz Vlahos. Next, take this challenging 10-question online quiz about Veterans Day, courtesy of AARP. Finally, share both the video and the quiz with your friends and family to help them better understand and appreciate the importance and significance of this annual holiday.
8. School a Veteran
Since 2007, cable television's History network has helped thousands of schools across the country hold a "Take a Veteran to School Day" event. Sometimes conducted for the entire student body, sometimes just involving the students of a single classroom, these opportunities connect American military veterans with K-12 students. To discover how you can bring a veteran to your school to share his or her stories and educate students about their past, visit the History network's "Take a Veteran to School" page, which provides links to a how-to guide in English and Spanish, curriculum guides, links to additional resources, etc.
9. Visit a Memorial
In towns and cities across the country, you will find memorials dedicated to the brave men and women who served in the Armed Forces. Whether honoring the soldiers of a particular war or battle, a specific branch of military service, an individual who distinguished him or herself during combat, etc., consider visiting a memorial in your area -- especially if you've never played "hometown tourist" before.
In addition, every American should experience at least once the many historic treasures in our nation's capital, Washington, DC -- particularly the memorials dedicated to the brave men and women who fought in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, as well as Arlington National Cemetery. Whether on foot, bus or Segway, public or private, during day or night, etc., visiting the memorials in Washington, DC, is a great way to honor our troops, present and past.
10. Visit a Cemetery
Finally, consider honoring a deceased soldier on Veterans Day by visiting his or her gravesite, the spot where his or her cremated remains ("ashes") were scattered, or some other significant location in the life of the deceased. While there, you should remove any debris, such as leaves or dead flowers, from the gravesite and then leave a fresh floral bouquet and/or an American flag at his or her resting place to denote your visit and your appreciation. This act doesn't merely honor the dead; every living soldier, presently in service or not, would find comfort in knowing that his or her memory will live on in the hearts and minds of a grateful nation.
"VA Voluntary Service." U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved November 3, 2013. http://www.volunteer.va.gov/index.asp
"About," www.honorflight.org. Retrieved November 3, 2013. http://www.honorflight.org/about
"Welcome," www.wwiimemorial.com. Retrieved November 3, 2013. http://www.wwiimemorial.com
"Take a Veteran to School." www.history.com. Retrieved November 4, 2013. http://www.history.com/take-a-veteran-to-school