OP-ED: Flag-waving's not enough for our veterans


This week, on Wednesday, Americans will pause to pay tribute to the men and women of our nation's armed services, those who fought to preserve and propagate the ideals and values we all cherish.

The auspicious occasion is marked each year with celebratory parades along town main streets and city thoroughfares, flags of red, white and blue flapping and flowing on lamp posts and house lawns, and patriotic music and fireworks blaring into the air. Federal government offices are closed and some schools give children the day off. And, yes, there are countless sales at shops and stores, little and big.

It seems like Veterans Day has been the same for most of the nearly 100 years since President Woodrow Wilson first declared the date to be a commemoration of the heroic men who fought in World War I; it was then known as "Armistice Day."

But, how many of us really appreciate what Veterans Day symbolizes? How many of those retailers that tout the stars and stripes in their advertising and marketing actually donate proceeds from sales on that day to veterans' causes? How many of us even know a veteran?

In the new PBS documentary "Debt of Honor," a film about the history of disabled Americans veterans, Max Cleland, the former U.S. senator from Georgia and the first disabled veteran to serve as what is now the secretary of Veterans Affairs, repeats a particularly illuminating saying of one military branch:

"America is not at war. The Marines are at war. America is at the mall."

The challenge we face this Veterans Day and all those moving forward is to reconcile the disconnect between the comfortable life we civilians have at home, with few of us having to suffer, and the men and women in our Armed Forces who are called upon to sacrifice their jobs, time with their families, and far too often their lives.

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are disassociated from the military and veterans' communities. Less than 1 percent of our population currently serves in the armed forces, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II, and only 5 percent have a direct connection to someone in the military.

So it is inconceivable to us civilians that there are now 4 million living disabled American veterans. It is unfathomable for us to imagine that, each night in America, there are 50,000 homeless veterans and an additional 1.4 million at risk of being homeless due to poverty, a lack of support networks and substandard living conditions.

And it is equally incomprehensible that there are an estimated 10,000 female veterans on the streets every night, and that 1 in every 5 women who have served are victims of military sexual assault. Yet, very few Veterans Affairs programs are specifically tailored to meet their physical and psychological needs.

I was born in the 1930s and have vivid memories of World War II. Every family I knew had a member who was serving in the military. At the same time, we were all in service to our country, each of us knowing that in our own small way we were contributing to the war effort through food and gas rationing, planting "victory gardens," working in war-related industries and being Gold Star mothers, among other endeavors.

For 300 million-plus Americans today, however, there is no realization on a daily basis of what our brothers and sisters are doing to keep us safe and secure.

It is time for us, therefore, to transform Veterans Day, to go back to what President Wilson first proclaimed, "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 the nations."

To do so, I advocate making Nov. 11 a national day of service, a day when each of us at home truly honors our veterans, disabled and abled, by volunteering for the benefit of our country. We can start by giving time and energy to veterans and veterans' service organizations, whether it is helping do some renovations to a local VFW or American Legion post to doing chores around the house of a disabled veteran. Beyond that, there are so many soup kitchens, animal shelters, community organizations, school groups, and others looking for hands-on assistance, especially at a time when private and public funding is becoming more difficult to attract.

We can never truly repay the debt we owe our veterans. But if these true American heroes can give us 365 days of service a year, the least we can do is give them, and our great nation, one in return.

— Lois Pope, a native of Philadelphia now living in Florida, conceived the idea for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington, and conceived and funded "Debt of Honor," which is scheduled to air on PBS on Tuesday. She wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.