Veterans Day 2009

I have the letters my grandfather wrote home to his mother while he was in France, during the First World War -- all except the particular one I was looking for, of course. The letter he wrote the week after the Armistice is now in so safe a place that I can't find it. I recall it, though. He said there were celebrations, perhaps rivaling those at home, and I think he mentioned fireworks; and he wrote of walking some distance, maybe a few miles, to have a Sunday dinner with a French family. Three weeks later, in December, he wrote that he hoped to be home by Christmas. I believe he just about made it.

The following year, on the first anniversary of the Armistice, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Armistice Day a national holiday, and it has remained so ever since. It was renamed Veterans Day in 1954, and it honors those who served, perpetually identified with the event that brought about their return. There was a parade in New York City in 1919, with thousands of soldiers; I'm sure you've seen the pictures of columns of soldiers ten or 20 abreast in silent-movie quick time. Conceivably, the parade could have included my grandfather, although I don't know this for a fact. This year, the marchers included my older son, an Army reservist.

My older daughter married a soldier, just over a month ago. Chris is safely back from Afghanistan. Two of his buddies were also able to attend, and I found it a pleasure as well as an honor to make their acquaintance: they are well-behaved, well-spoken, well-informed, and interesting to talk to on any number of topics. Chris's enlistment runs into next spring, so he had to go back to Fort Hood after the wedding. Ever thoughtful, within an hour of last week's shooting he got word to my daughter that he was safe.

And I met another young veteran last week -- Paul Rieckhoff, the author of Chasing Ghosts, which is about his year as a platoon leader in Baghdad in 2004. As the book ends, he is creating IAVA, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. (It has a Web site.) I met him at IAVA's headquarters in New York, where I also picked up some copies of its thorough and well-documented report on homelessness among veterans. One thing that made a strong impression on me was how young he appeared, although he is older than my new son-in-law, and older in fact than my grandfather was when he served, or my father when he served, or me when I served. I guess it's just that when I served, veterans were people who were 30 years older than I was -- impossibly old -- and now they're 30 years younger.

At 11 this Wednesday morning, I went to Fairfield's own Veterans Day observance, in front of the Honor Roll on the Town Green. There was no parade. Cars went by on the Old Post Road, making it somewhat difficult to hear, but the world would have little noted nor long remembered what they said there anyway. I counted about 75 people altogether, perhaps half in American Legion or VFW caps. There were a half-dozen or so elected office-holders. My younger son was with me, and he spotted another student from his high school science class among the total of seven or eight school-age children in attendance. I know that 10,000 students had the day off from school in Fairfield.

After the observance, the DAR offered refreshments at the Old Academy. On the way in, there was a glass bowl containing some dollar bills, inviting donations for Homes for the Brave. Homes for the Brave is a Bridgeport nonprofit that provides supportive and transitional housing for homeless veterans. (I am on its board and I have written about it before.) Reportedly, there are 131,000 homeless veterans in the United States, and over 300,000 veterans experience homelessness during the course of a year. One homeless man in three, and one homeless person in four, is a veteran. The difference in the fractions means that some homeless veterans are women. And that last number -- 300,000 -- is the same as the total of all veterans in Connecticut. As far as I am concerned, it is 300,000 too many.

Abraham Lincoln's gave his second Inaugural Address when he was within sight of the end of the war, but he eschewed triumphalism. He ended with this: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

The end of the present war is not in sight. But one day a year is not enough for all there is to do.