This Veterans Day when I go out for coffee with friends, you can bet I'll be wearing — above my left breast-pocket — my airborne wings and a small handful of miniature versions of the medals I earned in the service of our country 20-plus years ago. Pinned above them will be the most important decoration I've ever worn: the Marine Corps emblem.
This will be the first Veterans Day I've ever done so, and I may feel a bit self-conscious at first. But this is not about me: This is not about who I am or what I was. This is about the personal recognition of an unending, unwavering line of American warriors who have been standing watch in peace and in war since 1775. And the fact that U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson has launched a brand-new "Veterans Pride Initiative" calling on all American veterans to wear their decorations this Veterans Day as a national expression of patriotism and unity.
"We hope to kindle a new spark of patriotism, nationwide," Ozzie Garza, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, tells National Review Online. "You don't have to necessarily wear your medals at a Veterans Day event. We want you to do that, but we also want you to wear them at work, on the golf course, at the grocery store, anywhere. This is about understanding and appreciation"
Dave Autry, the deputy national director of communications for Disabled American Veterans, agrees.
"This initiative is going to go a long way toward helping the American public realize just how many [approximately 24 million] men and women actually have served in the military," says Autry, who served in the Navy and saw combat action during the Vietnam War. "And it will also remind Americans that it's not the politicians who have given us our rights and freedoms: It's the men and women who have been on the ramparts."
Secretary Nicholson began developing the medal-wearing initiative after attending ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day ceremonies in Sydney last spring. Celebrated each year on April 25, ANZAC Day is considered one of Australia's most important national holidays, and originally commemorated the First World War battle of Gallipoli where approximately 8,000 Australians perished on Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. Today ANZAC Day — more of a combination of our Veterans Day and Memorial Day — honors all Australian and New Zealand military veterans.
In an open letter to America's veterans, Nicholson says what struck him most during the ANZAC ceremonies were the veterans and their surviving family members who wore their medals and campaign ribbons.
"It focused public pride and attention on those veterans as individuals with personal histories of service and sacrifice for the common good," he says.
The secretary is adamant about not wanting U.S. veterans to view the wearing of their decorations as "boasting," and thus not wearing them. It is simply another way in which veterans may continue to serve their country with a display of military pride and allegiance with all soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen, as well as a personal expression of loyalty to — and an unbroken bond with — veterans of previous conflicts and those currently engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world.
Following last month's announcement of the initiative, "an elderly lady approached the Secretary and said she was 'glad' he was 'doing this,' because her husband would not wear his Purple Heart because he didn't want others to think he was 'bragging,'" recalls Garza. "The Secretary told her it would not at all be bragging, but deserved recognition. And the American people need to see and know who their veterans are."
Carl Hawkins, director of the Veterans Administration Regional Office for South Carolina, tells NRO, "this will allow the general public and the veterans' families to pay closer attention to our veterans, and perhaps ask questions about their service and about the meaning and importance of Veterans Day."
Veterans Day has for decades been known throughout the world as Armistice Day, because it is the anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire documents ending World War I on November 11, 1918. In the United States, however, the 'day' has evolved into something broader.
Nine years after the war, in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge issued a congressionally authorized proclamation calling for the display of U.S. flags on all government buildings to remember Armistice Day. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law making Armistice Day an official holiday within the District of Columbia. In 1954, Congress changed the name to Veterans Day to honor all American servicemen and women from all eras, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower called on the entire nation to appropriately observe the day. With the new Veterans Pride Initiative, Nicholson is hoping 2006 will also be a red-letter year in the history of Veterans Day, and that the initiative will become a tradition.
"On this holiday we honor the 24 million among us who once wore our nation's uniforms to serve the cause of liberty," says Nicholson. "By displaying their medals, veterans can band together again to show their pride in America and its armed forces."
Nicholson is also calling on veterans to wear their decorations on Independence Day (July 4) and Memorial Day (the last Monday in May).
A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of five books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online