My Great Uncle George - standing on the left with his fire brigade in Jacksonville, Florid - served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in World War I, the Great War. To him, this day was Armistice Day, the day marking the end of that war at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. I was ten when he died and didn't know him well, but much of what he was as a veteran is present in my house. His portrait hangs just off our foyer. The pocket Bible he carried is in a keepsake cabinet nearby along with his military issue binoculars and a gift from his unit, a silver-plated swagger stick made from machine gun shells casings and topped with the Seal of the U.S. Army. The last item is the flag that covered his coffin. To my knowledge, it's still in the original triangle fold made the day he was buried nearly sixty years ago.
As much as I value these mementos of George's life, they cannot surpass the value of his service in defense of family, nation, and faith. Today, all of the veterans of World War I are gone and the 1.5 million veterans of World War II are passing on at an accelerating rate. Still, we are left with millions of servicemen and women from the Korean conflict through Vietnam, the Middle East actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and full circle to those still standing in the trenches in Korea. They are all reminders that freedom is not free.
From the time I could hold a paint brush with serious determination - probably 1951 - I did my part to honor veterans. A week before the holiday, Dad and I went to the local cemetery to paint flag holders and install Old Glory on the graves of veterans of the Great War who had been member of my dad's lodge. The lodge had a seventy year history in my small town and scores of holders were scattered at random on the landscape. My instructions were simple: armed with primary yellow, blue and red paint, paint carefully, leave no spatters, paint EVERY marker. The worst offense, by far, was missing a marker, but Dad made sure that never happened.
On Veterans Day proper, there was a brief service from atop a small memorial building. At its conclusion, the crowds descended from the hilltop cemetery to either watch or march in what seemed like an endless parade down Main Street. It was straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration: flags, bands, fire trucks, politicians, the ladies' auxiliary, the soldiers. It was a most impressive event.
Ninety-seven years ago the Great War came to an end with the signing of the Armistice Treaty by the Allied forces and Germany. For the next 34 years Armistice Day honored the service of veterans of that war. In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day and its scope was expanded to honor all American veterans.
I am not a veteran. I'll never experience how military service shapes a person inside, but I do know that every veteran has paid a price that enables us to enjoy life in this bountiful nation. On November 11 - Armistice Day or Veterans Day - we should take some time to remember those who have served their country and its people. To all of them I offer my sincerest admiration and thanks on this day and every day.