Veterans Day is a major holiday in the United States. It has grown in significance in the past few years with the increased military presence around the world. Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, coined by President Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I (1917-1919). It is still known as Armistice Day throughout Western Europe. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name to Veterans Day–a day to honor all the people who served in American wars.
Americans love Veterans Day! How often can one recognize and celebrate the people that keep America safe? Actually, they can be honored every day but Veterans Day is an official appreciation of their service.
Veterans Day is the only holiday that focuses on the contributions of the military. The US Armed Forces has a long and controversial history that is marked by courage and heroism as well as discrimination and injustice. It is a complex and evolving institution.
The American military began as a small, loosely-connected group of poor and uneducated men led by the inexperienced but motivated General George Washington in 1775. Their goal was to fight off the British. Today, the US Armed Forces is an enormous, sophisticated, and diverse group of highly trained, highly educated, and highly motivated men and women. And they are no less patriotic today than when they marched barefoot with bayonets to fight the Red Coats.
In the last 240 years, the US Armed Forces has developed in much the same way as the country that it protects. In fact, the evolution of its military has mirrored the evolution of the country as a whole. What began as a group of loosely-connected, regionally scattered people has turned into a close-knit, duty-bound “family” devoted to protecting its home, values, and way of life. The military is now more inclusive–more people are welcomed to join the club. But this was not always true.
From the Civil War (1861-65) to the Korean War (1950-53), the U.S. military maintained racially segregated African American units to provide support and limited combat. In the first half of the 20th century, segregation was rife throughout the country. Segregation was also the norm in the military. President Truman desegregated the armed forces by executive order in 1948.
Yet discrimination continued in housing, jobs, salaries, and education was common throughout the United States—and throughout the US armed forces. African Americans were relegated to menial jobs, low-level positions, and inferior quarters. African Americans were prohibited from combat positions. During the Second World War (1941-45), more than 2 million African Americans registered for the draft. Yet only 50 thousand were allowed to participate in combat. Many were denied technical and combat training, higher-level positions, and education. This was the norm throughout the United States in both civil and military sectors.
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement swept through the country. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 was passed. African Americans were guaranteed many rights, including the right to vote. Discrimination was prohibited by law. Segregation was abolished.
At the same time, the military began to change toward African Americans soldiers. The Vietnam War (1965-69) saw the highest level of African Americans ever to serve in an American war. They comprised 12.6 percent of soldiers though only 11 percent of the general population.
While the civil rights movement formed demonstrations throughout the country to protest injustice, African American soldiers were also voicing their discontent with the military. They organized riots on warships and military bases to protest racial inequality and injustice.
Still, African Americans showed their skill, abilities, and allegiance in Vietnam. Twenty African Americans received the Medal of Honor and several became general officers leading multi-racial troops into combat.
Today, the US Armed Forces continues to struggle to keep up with the growing diversity of the United States. African Americans have served in every war since the Revolutionary War (1775-83). African Americans continue to serve in the military in leadership roles, policy-making positions, and combative roles. There have been ten African Americans to attain the rank of 4-star general–five in the army, four in the air force, and one in the navy. In 2008, President Barack Obama became the first African American to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces. Still, African Americans comprise 17 percent of the armed forces yet only 9 percent of officers.
There are more than 2 million African American veterans living in the United States. Like the freedom fighters during the civil rights movement, African American former or retired soldiers have also “fought the good fight” and created the opportunity for a diverse, representative, and just armed forces.
Veterans Day is an important holiday but veterans can (and should) be honored throughout the year. Many have fought to save lives and secure freedom in distant countries. And they have also fought to promote liberty, equality, and justice at home.