The Real Significance of November 11
But numerology and pattern preference aside, November 11 is significant because it is Veterans Day. Many people today do not realize that the date, which is not moved to make it into a convenient 3-day weekend, has historical significance. Originally known as Armistice Day, it marked the European end of the War to End All Wars, the horrifically brutal World War I. Looking at war casualties today, it is almost impossible to visualize the human slaughter that typified the First World War. This table gives some sense of the sheer horror of the casualty figures, comparing it with U.S. casualties in all other major conflicts up through the Persian Gulf. Four nations, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, and Romania, saw more than 70% of their fighting forces wounded, killed, imprisoned or go missing (many literally swallowed in the mud of the battlefields). Small wonder then at the relief marking the signing of the Armistice that ended hostilities, at least on the Western Front, in a world numbed by devastation.
The historical importance of this day was confirmed when Congress moved the Veterans day to the fourth Monday in October in 1968. Ten years later, giving into public pressure, Congress changed it back to its original date.Veterans Day has been celebrated on the 11th of November in the United States ever since. The date of the Armistice is celebrated under various names in all of the British Commonwealth countries (Australia, Canada, etc.) as well as England itself, France, Belgium and Poland, where it is also celebrated as Independence Day since the nation was officially created with the end of the First World War. The British commemoration marks the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the time at which Germany signed the Armistice agreement.
The tradition of exchanging poppies for donations made to veterans' charities also traces back to World War I, and more specifically to the poem "In Flanders Field" by John McCrae. Red poppies grew across the war-shattered fields of Belgium, and with particular splendor on the increasing graves of the dead. The poppies, whose blood-red color seemed especially appropriate, soon became the symbol of all who died serving their country.
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan
As this country looks with relief to the return of troops from Iraq and continues to support those on mission in Afghanistan, Veterans Day becomes more meaningful to many with each passing year. Today's veterans struggle with many of the same issues as their predecessors: unemployment, service-related disabilities, readjustment to civilian life, alcohol and substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (includes a link to an hour-long PBS program about whether today's vets are getting the help they need).
But today's vets also have some special problems of their own. Among these is homelessness. The current economic crisis has left approximately 107,000 veterans homeless on any given night, more than half of them African-American or Hispanic. This generation of veterans is significantly more likely than generations past to find itself living on the street and in dangerous circumstances.
Not unrelated to the problem of homelessness is another problem unique to this generation of warriors the high incidence of traumatic brain injury. A high percentage of homeless vets suffered from traumatic brain injury during their tour of duty. Increasing awareness of the effects of trauma on the brain has contributed to increasing discussions of brain injury in other contexts as well.
The changing makeup of the modern army has brought attention to different issues.The increase in the number of women in the military (now 1 in 7 of all service personnel) has exposed a culture of sexual violence within it that victimizes both women and men. The impact of this violence on the victims can be profound and lifelong. This well-documented news story and this documentary offer further information about a problem the military has, in the past, tried to downplay as sexual hijinks and now is only beginning to address.
But none of these difficulties takes away from the profound contributions these men and women provided to their country. They have dedicated themselves to the service of our country in the a way that deserves the utmost respect. So take some time to recognize the real significance of 11-11-11, and honor those who have and do serve. If you know of a veteran in need of assistance, direct he or she to the DACC Veterans' Service Center (http://www.dacc.edu/veterans/). If you would like to hear some veterans' stories, go to the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, or perhaps just take a contemplative walk through Danville National Cemetery.
Photo: Danville National Cemetery