For nearly a century now, our nation has paused on Nov. 11th to pay tribute to our veterans. From the era of George Washington to now, this select group of men and women has unfailingly protected us here at home while sacrificing so much to promote and preserve freedom abroad.
Veterans Day traces its roots to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, when the fighting stopped during World War I. Eight years later, Congress passed a resolution declaring that it was “fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
Armistice Day, as it was then known, became a federal holiday in the 1930s, and in 1954, following fighting in World War II and Korea, its scope was understandably broadened to include all veterans.
Overall, more than 40 million Americans have served our country since 1776, and about half are still with us today, including two million who are on active duty or in the Guard or Reserves.
According to the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, about 331,000 veterans call the commonwealth home. A third of those fought in Vietnam while a slightly lesser amount served in the Gulf War. The number of World War II veterans, a group now mostly in their 90s, totals less than 12,000.
Kentuckians have a long history of giving more than their fair share. Their casualties during the War of 1812, for example, exceeded the combined total of every other state.
A Kentuckian – McLean County native Cpl. James Bethel Gresham – is believed to be the first American solider to die during World War I, and another – Hopkinsville’s Robley Rex – was that war’s second-to-last American survivor. He passed away in 2009 just a few days prior to his 108th birthday.
In World War II, it was a Kentuckian – Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who was born in Henderson – who led the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Another Kentuckian – Private Robert H. Brooks of Scott County – became the first U.S. Armored Forces casualty of that war when the Philippine Islands were attacked just hours later.
The most iconic photo from World War II – the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima – features a Kentuckian among the six Marines pictured. That, of course, is Fleming County’s Franklin R. Sousley.
Kentucky has another connection to a historical moment featuring our flag. Presley O’Bannon – who moved to Logan County after his military service in the early 1800s and later served in the General Assembly – was also the first soldier to plant our flag on foreign soil. That moment is best remembered in the second half of the opening line of the Marines’ Hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”
Over the past quarter-century, the state has re-dedicated itself to paying back the veterans who served us. That includes establishing four veterans-only nursing homes and four state-run veterans cemeteries to complement the national ones that have limited space.
We awarded high school diplomas to older veterans who enlisted before graduation; made it easier for veterans to use their military training when applying for such jobs as paramedics, teachers, firefighters or within state government; authorized memorials for the National Guard and those who died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan; and established the Department of Veterans Affairs, which serves as advocate and advisor both here and at the federal level.
This year, the General Assembly created a program to publicly highlight businesses owned by disabled veterans and we set aside a day in March to thank Vietnam veterans for their many contributions.
All of this is a small price to pay for the priceless gifts they have given us, and while we should be thankful every day, it is especially important that we express our gratitude on the day set aside just for them.
If attending one of our area’s ceremonies is not possible, I encourage you to keep our veterans and those still serving in your thoughts and prayers.
For those who are veterans, meanwhile, always know that your service and sacrifice will never be forgotten. In ways large and small, you have made a profound difference in all of our lives, and it is deeply appreciated.