Veterans Day 2011: Why It’s Today, How It’s Changed, More

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.

(Also see Veterans Day in National Geographic: “The Nation’s Cemetery.”)

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.

(Related: “U.S. Veterans Day Marked by Release of Vets’ Stories.”)

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.”