Saturday, November 11, 2023

Veterans Day: What Lays Behind the Day We Honor Those Who Served?


November 11th is Veterans Day.  However, it was not always known as such. It was originally called "Armistice Day" or "Remembrance Day" to honor of the day when the guns of World War One officially fell silent on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour(WWI was also known as "the Great War" and "war to end all wars"). In truth of course, the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended the war set the stage for the Second World War barely 27 years later.

The fuse which lit the carnage known as World War One began on June 28, 1914 following the assassination of the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Bosnian Serb anarchist Gavrilo Princip. Ferdinand's father, the Emperor Franz Joseph held the Serbians responsible and despite (or perhaps because of) a broken heart and halfhearted demands for justice failed, war declared 30 days later on July 28th and the carnage which claimed  20 million lives while wounding 21 million others began.

I always found it ironic that the warring parties had actually agreed to a ceasefire weeks earlier, but apparently thought it poetic to chose the 11th hour, 11th day, and 11th month to formally stop shooting each other. Obviously no one bothered to ask the soldiers stuck in the mud and muck of the trenches, suffering from dysentery and trench foot or forced into eating rats for their opinion. If they had, I suspect they'd would have been quite willing to forgo the turn of a phrase and just go home.  

But Veteran's Day doesn't just mark the end of World War One.  It is also intended to honor the men and women who've served in our armed forces. As of 2023, just 6% of the U.S. population or about 16 million individuals, can call themselves veterans, and that number is declining.  In 1980, 18% of Americans were veterans.

Meanwhile,  veterans are twice as likely to be homeless as the average American. Some 67,000 veterans---10% of the homeless population---are chronically homeless. 76% have some form of substance abuse or untreated mental illness. Almost one million live near or below the poverty level and about 30% between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed.

Fewer and fewer of our elected representatives have served in the military. The last President to do so was George W Bush who served in the Texas Air National Guard, although he never saw combat.  The last president who did see combat was George's dad, George H.W. Bush, who served in the Navy during WWII.

America was still recovering from a severe economic depression when it was attacked on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese surprise at Pearl Harbor. The following day, the U.S. declared war. Eventually some 16 million men were to serve in uniform. Their average age was 26. One million of those would actually see combat.  405,399 of them would die. That's one death for every 58 soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine.

Just over 400,000 women volunteered (they weren't drafted) to serve in various military auxiliary units known as the WACs, WAVEs, Coast Guard SPARs, Marine Corp Women's Reserve, and the Navy and Army Nursing Corps.  While they didn't serve in combat, they still served in every theater of war and provided invaluable support to the war effort.

It's worth noting that of those who served, 38.8% were volunteers. They mostly enlisted at the start of the war. 61.2% were drafted. 73% of them served overseas, with an average of 16 months abroad.  The average term of enlistment was 33 months. And they did all this for just an average of $71.33 per month. If you were an officer, you earned $203.50 per month.

According to the Veteran Administration, of those nearly 17 million brave men and women of the greatest generation", there are just 120,000 World War II veterans still alive today. That comprises just 1% of all veterans today.

The Korean War came on the heels of WWII, which begun on June 27, 1950 and continued through January 31, 1955 (technically, the war is still considered to be "hot" since only a cease fire or armistice was signed by the various warring parties). 6.8 million men and women were to serve during the Korean War. Of those, there are 767,000 veterans of the Korean War alive today, which comprises about 4% of all veterans.  

The Vietnam War was arguably the most contentious war in recent U.S. history. The Vietnam War in truth a civil war which was between the Communist factions most situated in the north and the nominally "democratic" factions in the south following the defeat of the French in 1954 at Diem Bien Phu.  The war initially had begun as an attempt to oust the colonial French from Vietnam, which was interrupted by the invading Japanese during WWII, and resumed following the defeat of Imperial Japan.  

U.S. involvement began in earnest in early 1961 and continued through May 1975. During that time, more than 2.7 men and women served in Vietnam, which represented about 9.7% of their generation. The average age of GI in Vietnam was just 19 years old.  7,484 women served in Vietnam as well. 85.5% or 6,250 of them served as nurses.  58,148 of those who served in Vietnam lost their lives. Of those killed, 61% were under 21 years of age with the average age of those killed was 23. 11 years old. 1,611 servicemen are still missing.

The Vietnam war also produced tens of thousands of wounded and disabled. 303,704 individuals were wounded in action. 75,000 were listed as severely disabled. 23,214 are rated as 100% disabled. 5,283 lost a limb while 1,081 lost multiple limbs, and yet while those numbers are high, the number of amputations in WWII were 300% higher. However, because of the use of booby-traps, multiple amputations occurred at a rate of 18.4% of injuries compare to 5.4% in WWII.

It's worth pointing out that 88.4% of those who served in Vietnam were classified as white (which included Hispanics). 12.5% were black, and 1.2% were Asian or of another or mixed race. Of those who were killed, 86.8% were white. 12.4% were black and 1.1 belonged to another race. 14.6% of blacks killed were no-combat related. 34% of blacks volunteered for combat duty.  

76% of the men who served in Vietnam were from poor or working class backgrounds. 75% had family incomes below the poverty level while 23% came from upper middle or better economic backgrounds. Almost 80% had a high school degree or better. 91% of those who served regardless of race or economic background said they were glad they did and 74% said they'd do it again knowing the same outcome.

It's also worth noting that 97% of Vietnam veterans received a honorable discharge. 240 earned the Medal of Honor. Today, there are 5.6 million veterans of the Vietnam War still alive. That's about 30% of all veterans.

43% of all veterans today served in the Gulf War Era. That's about 7.8 million men and women who served from 1990 to present according to the Veterans Administration. Operation Desert Shield, which ran from August 2, 1990 to January 17, 1991.Operation Desert Shield was from January 17, 1991 through February 28, 1991 resulted in the deaths of 148  U.S. service personnel (including deaths by so-called "friendly fire").  Another 235 died of non-combat related injuries while 1,565 died in what the military termed "non-theater" related action while 467 individuals were wounded.  

Meanwhile, the euphemistically named "Enduring Freedom", which was the U.S. war in Afghanistan lasted from October 1, 2001 until December 28, 2014 saw 2,402 military personnel killed along with 10 CIA operatives. 1.5 million men and women served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which saw the deaths of 4,492 U.S. military personnel, of which 3,481 were killed in action.  Operation Iraqi Freedom ran from 2003 until 2011.

Serving in the military isn't for everyone. It takes courage and commitment. Many say the rewards are worth it and far outweigh the risks, but believe me, as a disabled veteran, the sacrifices are real. However, the military is our first and last line of defense against those who wish us harm. 

While we may disagree with the political policies which, intentionally or not, put our military in harm's way for the sake of material gain or power, we should never allow that to affect our respect for those men and women who stand ready to defend this nation at a moment's notice.

Finally, remember that when someone joins the U.S. military, regardless of age, race, ethnic group, or any other factor, they take an oath to defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. That oath doesn't come with an expiration date. We are all the more safer as a nation thanks to our veteran-citizens. So, be sure to thank a veteran or active duty military member, not just on Veteran's Day, but any time you happen to meet one. 


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Research Starters: US Military by the Numbers

VVA Chapter 310: Vietnam War Statistics

The Changing Face of America's veteran population


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