Today is Veterans Day. As we remember, however, the original holiday was called “Armistice Day,” after the Armistice with Germany took effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, to formally cease hostilities after World War I. The holiday was officially proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson to take effect a year later, on November 11, 1919. Wilson wrote: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us, and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.”
But then in 1945, a World War II veteran named Raymond Weeks of Birmingham, AL, requested that the holiday be expanded to celebrate ALL veterans; an idea supported by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Weeks began arranging celebrations in Alabama annually until the change to “Veterans Day” was formally signed into law in 1954 by Eisenhower himself, by then, President of the United States.
American Jews have a long and proud record of military service in the Armed Forces of the United States. It has been, for many, an affirmation of identity as Jewish Americans to serve the United States in this way. My father, z”l, and Steve’s father, z”l, served proudly during WWII, as did virtually all of their peers. They were part of what Tom Brokaw has dubbed “The Greatest Generation.”
As it happens, I had a great-uncle who served in WWI in Europe. I never knew him, and in fact, until I was a teenager, I never knew he had even existed. But in a rather roundabout way I found out about him, and a few years ago, I actually was able to locate his grave. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and, as is written on his gravestone, he died on Armistice Day of 1923 – exactly 100 years ago. The circumstances of his death and burial are too complicated for this limited context, though suffice it to say that I gather he suffered from “shell shock,” which was WWI’s precursor to what we might now call “PTSD,” with which we are now all too familiar.