Remembering Veterans, Both Living and Lost

By Ila Bonczek | November 10, 2021
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
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Members of the 86th Civil Engineer Group Air Force stand in formation during a Veterans Day ceremony at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial, Belgium, Nov. 11, 2017. (Image: Joshua Magbanua via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

No one with a conscience likes war. The killing, the destruction, and the immeasurable suffering are all deplorable; yet there are certain things that humans are willing to fight, and even die for, like human rights and liberty. 

“I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Nathan Hale, 1776 before being executed by the British for espionage.

America has long been a symbol of freedom, yet it came at the price of many lives in the American Revolution (1775 – 1783). An estimated 7000 American, 10,000 French, 5000 Spanish, 6,000 British, and 1,800 Germain soldiers were lost in battle, yet up to ten times as many succumbed to disease under poor conditions.

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

Ronald Reagan

The Civil War of 1861-1865, too, was a war for freedom; with the country torn by slavery. This war claimed more American lives than any other conflict, with a casualty total of 623,026. An estimated 407,000 U.S. military casualties occurred in World War II, in which 16 million Americans served. Veterans serving in the Vietnam War number 5.9 million, while 7.8 million served in the Gulf War era. 

“The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated [this ground], far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

President Abraham Lincoln, 1873, in his Gettysburg Address

Veteran’s Day is a day to remember all those who have served or continue to serve their country; risking, and often giving their lives to protect the interests of others. Initially named Armistice (Latin for standing, or still, arms) Day, the tradition of commemorating veterans began on the first anniversary of the end of World War I, November 11, 1919. Armistice Day is still a public holiday in both France and Belgium. In the UK, Australia and Canada it is now called Remembrance Day, and Veterans are honored with a moment of silence at 11am. 

“I saw your sons and your husbands, your brothers and your sweethearts. I saw how they worked, played, fought, and lived. I saw some of them die. I saw more courage, more good humor in the face of discomfort, more love in an era of hate, and more devotion to duty than could exist under tyranny.” 

Comedian Bob Hope, 1944, from his book I Never Left Home about his tours to entertain the troops during U.S. conflicts from WWII to the Persian Gulf War.

In the U.S, the annual observance became a national holiday in 1938. President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed the name to Veterans Day in 1954. Since the country’s founding in 1776, the U.S. has fought in several major wars and intervened in many more, with tens of millions of Americans serving in the armed forces through the generations, including most of our presidents. Americans killed in the line of duty number well over 1 million, with most of those deaths occurring in the Civil War and WWII.

“Veterans know better than anyone else the price of freedom, for they’ve suffered the scars of war. We can offer them no better tribute than to protect what they have won for us.” 

President Ronald Reagan, from a 1983 Address to the Nation.

The U.S. currently has around 19 million living veterans who served during at least one war. The percentage of the population with military experience today is less than 10 percent, approximately half what it was 40 years ago at 18 percent. A projected drop of 35% by 2046 will leave only 12.6 million American veterans alive.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” 

President John F. Kennedy, 1963, shortly before his death on Nov. 22.

On Veterans Day and Memorial Day (which honors only the deceased veterans) each year, there is a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery, where over 400,000 people are buried, most of whom served in the military.

“Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war.” 

Senator John McCain, 2008