Veterans Day: Why It's Today, How It's Changed & More

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 11, 2009

At Veterans Day celebrations and events around the country, the United States is honoring the men and women of the nation's armed forces.

So why is November 11 Veterans Day? Who is it for? And how has it changed?

In keeping with Veterans Day tradition, U.S. President Barack Obama today laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, saying, "While it is important and proper that we mark this day, it is far more important we spend all our days determined to keep the promises that we've made to all who answer this country's call."

(See pictures of Arlington National Cemetery, site of the annual U.S. national Veterans Day ceremony.)

Speaking from the National Veterans Day Observance, Joe Davis, spokesperson for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW), described the standing-room-only scene.

"You have the President, you have cabinet members, you have the joint chiefs, and you have the public, veterans and family members, gathered to pay tribute to the sacrifice of all who served in uniform," he said. "And I would include their families as well, because they definitely also served."

Similar Veterans Day events will be carried out in cities and towns across the United States today, recognizing the 48 million men and women who have served or are serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, including 23 million living U.S. veterans and active duty service members.

(Related: "U.S. Veterans Day Marked by Release of Vets' Stories.")

Veterans Day Date Marks End of "Great War"

In the U.S., Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I. The so-called War to End All Wars ended with an armistice signed at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, in Compiègne, France—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

In the U.S., President Woodrow Wilson commemorated the first Armistice Day in 1919. It was made a national holiday via an act of Congress in 1938.

After World War II it became clear that the World War I armistice marked only the ending of World War I, not of war itself. The holiday was renamed Veterans Day to honor all those who served in the U.S. military.

In 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill designating November 11 as Veterans Day.

Veterans Day Long Weekends Lost

In 1968 Veterans Day was moved, by an act of Congress, to the fourth Monday in October. This shift of Veterans Day (as well as similar moves for Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day) was designed to create a three-day weekend for government employees.

The Veterans Day long weekend, though, was resisted by many states, localities, and veteran's groups. By 1978 Veterans Day was again rescheduled for annual observance on November 11.

Last "Great War" Veterans Nearly Gone

In the United Kingdom and other past and present nations of the British Commonwealth, November 11 is still Armistice Day or in some cases Remembrance Day.

World War I veterans are remembered by the wearing of real and artificial red poppies, like those found in Belgium after "In Flanders Fields"—the name of a popular World War I poem eulogizing fallen soldiers. Armistice Day is also marked with two minutes of silence at 11:00 a.m.

For honoring service members in general, the U.K. has its own Veterans Day—renamed Armed Forces Day in 2009—which falls in June of each year.

This year's British Armistice Day ceremonies held special poignancy, because 2009 saw the loss of the last World War I veterans living in the U.K: Bill Stone, 108; Henry Allingham, 113; and Harry Patch, 111. Australian resident and British Navy vet Claude Choules, 108, is now the last known British survivor of the Great War.

One U.S. veteran survives from the war that gave birth to Veterans Day: Frank Buckles, 108, of West Virginia. Canadian John Babcock, 109, also survives and currently lives in Spokane, Washington.

France and Germany have no known living World War I veterans.

November 11 is not celebrated in Germany, which was defeated along with other Central Powers countries. This year, however, the German nation for the first time took part in French Armistice Day celebrations in a very public way.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined French President Nicolas Sarkozy for a Paris ceremony that not only honored the dead of past conflicts but stressed reconciliation between the former foes.

Who Does Veterans Day Celebrate?

The VFW's Davis said some people remain confused about who the United States' various military-oriented holidays honor.

Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, is set aside for Americans to honor those who died in service of the country.

"Veterans Day is about everybody who wore or continues to wear the uniform," he said. "It's a very select group of American citizens that have had the opportunity to do that."

SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

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