Celebrate Veterans Day every day
Growing up in a military family in rural New York in the 1950s and ‘60s, every day felt like Veterans Day. Large family gatherings meant stories of camaraderie, exotic world travels and service to our country. Every year or so, my dad broke out his special suitcase with the many treasures from his service—medals, insignia, souvenir ashtrays, postcards. I looked forward to those special moments.
In my town, everyone stood, saluted or placed their hands over their hearts when American flags passed in the many parades we held. Veterans were proud to have served, and those who couldn’t or hadn’t served were eager to honor and respect those who did.
Things changed as I grew older. When I was in high school, the effects of the Vietnam War on the nation’s psyche became clearer as my older schoolmates went off to war. It seemed some Americans were unfairly projecting their frustrations with the politics of the time on those who least deserved it—our heroes in uniform. It was a rough time for our country and especially for our veterans.
When it was my turn to serve in 1976, Vietnam was behind us, but national emotions toward the military still were largely soured. At 17, I needed a parent’s permission to serve, even for what had become an all-volunteer force. I still remember my father’s sage words on what it means to serve in uniform, the honor I would bring my family, and the worries I would bring my mother. He granted me permission, and I went off to basic training.
Fortunately, during my 34 years in uniform, I experienced national respect for our service members and veterans return compared to what I witnessed during my childhood. Regrettably, it took a long time, countless armed encounters, many lost lives, a resurgence in hostile state actors, and the uncertainty of the future, to get us to that place again. The cowardly terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had a sobering way of bringing the nation back together to appreciate our democracy, and the veterans who allow us these freedoms.
Today, social media has brought the world closer and, with less than 1% of Americans serving in uniform today, gives many people many opportunities to thank veterans. I get words of thanks on Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day and when people simply want to say, “Thank you for your service.”
I offer a gentle reminder that Memorial Day should be reserved to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. On other days, I simply accept the gratitude our nation now shows for veterans again—because I remember a time in my life when some people in our nation forgot for a moment, and I never want that to happen again.
Happy Veterans Day every day.
Daniel R. Sitterly is the assistant secretary for the Office of Human Resources and Administration/Operations, Security and Preparedness in the Department of Veterans Affairs.