Ker Than | for National Geographic News
At Veterans Day events across the country, people in the United States gathered today to honor the millions of men and women who have served or are serving in the nation’s armed forces.
But why was November 11 set aside for the holiday, and how has its meaning changed over time?
Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, and the date was chosen for its symbolic significance, John Raughter, communications director for the American Legion, an organization of veterans helping other veterans, said in 2010.
“November 11 was intended to observe the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which marked the armistice of World War I,” Raughter said. (Related: “Veterans Say Dogs of War Deserve a Memorial.”)
The first Armistice Day in the U.S. occurred on November 11, 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson declared that “to us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with lots of pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory. … ”
Armistice Day was declared a legal holiday by Congress nearly 20 years later. In 1954 the name was changed to Veterans Day, following a national campaign to have the day honor all veterans, not just those who served in World War I.
Why Poppies for Armistice Day?
Veterans Day is still celebrated as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom and other past and present nations of the British Commonwealth.
World War I veterans are remembered by the wearing of real and artificial red poppies, like those found in Belgium, in reference to “In Flanders Fields,” the name of a popular World War I poem eulogizing fallen soldiers. Armistice Day is also marked with two minutes of silence at 11:00 a.m.
For honoring service members in general, the U.K. has its own Veterans Day—renamed Armed Forces Day in 2009—which falls in June of each year.
How Veterans Day Stands Apart
In the U.S., Veterans Day was moved, by a 1968 act of Congress, to the fourth Monday in October.
This shift of Veterans Day—as well as similar moves for Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day—started in 1971 and was designed to create a three-day weekend for government employees.
The Veterans Day long weekend, though, was resisted by many states, localities, and veteran’s groups. By 1978 Veterans Day was again rescheduled for annual observance on November 11.
Veterans Day remains a related but unique holiday from Memorial Day, which falls on the last Monday of May each year.
“Veterans Day is to honor and observe the sacrifices made by all veterans, whereas Memorial Day is to honor the fallen—those who have given their lives for the defense of this country,” said Raughter, who served in the Marine Corps from 1983 to 1990.
Veterans Day Visits
Today Veterans Day in the U.S. is marked by parades and remembrance events across the country. (See pictures of Arlington National Cemetery, site of the annual U.S. national Veterans Day ceremony.)
Not surprisingly, it’s also a busy day for war museums, such as the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
On November 11, 2011, all veterans will receive free admission to the museum, which is also hosting a Celebration of Heroes to honor the service of all veterans in attendance, according to the museum’s website.
On any day, museum spokesperson Kacey Hill encourages people to seek out and spend time with a veteran, especially WWII vets, a population that is slowly disappearing. In 2000 the number of living U.S. WWII veterans was estimated at 5.5 million. Today there are fewer than two million WWI veterans thought to be alive.
“I think, in general, it’s a holiday that a lot of people don’t necessarily think about,” Hill said in 2010.
“But something as simple as finding one veteran and saying thank you, it doesn’t just light up their life, but it’s amazing how good you feel when you see their reaction.”
And the American Legion’s Raughter believes that Veterans Day is “a day to teach young people about the sacrifices made by their fathers and grandfathers, uncles and neighbors, and mothers and grandmothers.”
“It’s about making sure that when the children of today hear the history lessons and traditions of our great country, they know that it would not be possible without veterans.”
And, for the service club’s 50th anniversary, it has offered to help with formulating a portion of the future.
The club’s vice president, John Graves told City Council members and Mayor Scott Coleman that as its main project for its golden anniversary year, the Lions want to help the city improve the property on Highland Road where a church building was recently demolished.
“We will do what we can do in conjunction with (the city) to improve the site,” Graves said.
“Instead of doing something for ourselves, like having another (commemorative) dinner like we did at our 25th anniversary, we thought why not do something that can help the city?” said club president Richard Eisenberg, a Lion of 46 years.
Part of an international organization dedicated to helping the visually handicapped and as well as those with hearing difficulties, the Highland Heights Lions Club has long played a part in the city’s direction.
In the 1960s, the club purchased what is thought to be the first jaws of life apparatus in the area for the local fire department at the time when Interstate 271 was built and it was thought high-speed accidents would be on the rise.
It has for decades played a part in the city’s Memorial Day remembrances, Home Days parades and establishment of the peace memorial that stands in front of the fire department.
Club members have raised money to provide playground equipment at Whiteford Park, worked to make safer after prom events at Mayfield High School and provided food for the needy.
The Highland Heights club also organized and oversaw the first three countywide high school all-star football games dating back about 40 years.
Eisenberg, a Highland Heights councilman in the early 1970s and now a Mayfield Village resident and lawyer, said the club first held its meetings at the old Eastgate Coliseum in the Eastgate shopping center.
“We then held our meetings at the Holiday Inn on Euclid Avenue (in Wickliffe), then a restaurant at Richmond Mall, in the back room of Denny’s (on Wilson Mills Road) before the PT Cruiser Club wanted the room — and they had more members than us — and now at Manhattan Deli (in Willoughby Hills).”
“Bill Brennan was mayor in the 1960s and ‘70s,” Eisenberg said. “He’s the man who made Highland Heights what it is today.”
Eisenberg recalls Brennan’s efforts leading to the acquisition of the Highland Heights Community Park, the founding of Alpha Park and Alpha Drive which led to big taxpaying businesses moving to the city, and bringing the Front Row Theater to Wilson Mills Road in the ‘70s.
“In the 1960s, Highland Heights was still pretty much rural. So rural, I can remember a babysitter once coming to our house on horseback,” Eisenberg said.
Because council members and mayors were Lions Club members, and because the club met regularly on Monday evenings, the story goes, council meetings were moved to Tuesday nights, a day on which they are still held.
Why be a Lion?
Service clubs were more popular in the post World War II years and up through the 1970s.
“At our peak, we probably had 24 members in the late 1970s,” Eisenberg said. “We probably have 13 or 14 now.”
Both Graves and Eisenberg note while the club’s median age is older than 50, there are signs young people want to be more involved in such clubs that do good for others.
The club now has a couple of members in their 30s, while its youngest member is Craig George, 27, who is the same age Eisenberg was when he joined.
“When you can help 500-600 people a year get the eyeglasses they need like we do through our program at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and as we have done since 1961, it’s a good feeling.
“I haven’t accomplished too much in life, but if I’m helping someone see better, that’s a good thing.
“I also know that as a Lion, I can go to any corner of the world and know I’ll have a friend there because we are all over the world.”
Graves has been a member about 10 years and has served as club president.
“Why did I join?” he said. “First was helping people, and second is the camaraderie.”
And, while other service clubs elsewhere may be suffering from dwindling numbers, the Highland Heights Lions remain strong.
Said Eisenberg of his years of service, “I couldn’t imagine not being a Lion.”