World governments recently paused to observe the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. That conflict was dubbed “the war to end all wars,” but ghastly years of stalemate, trenches, barbed wire and poison gas demonstrated that it was the war that could not even end itself.
While the “end all wars” claim did not hold up, America made sure to pay tribute and remember the sacrifice and the toll that WWI and other wars have exacted from our country.
Since the strife and ruin of our country’s Civil War, with more than 620,000 soldiers killed, a smaller and smaller proportion of Americans have been involved in military service. We looked up the numbers: The Civil War claimed the lives of over 3 percent of the young nation’s citizens. WWII’s toll was 1 percent of the population injured or dead. Our current conflicts in the Middle East have claimed 59,000 service personnel injured or killed, a still-sobering .002 percent of our population.
A generation of Americans are removed from military connections. Fewer than a third of Americans under the age of 30 know of any family member who serve or have served in a branch of the military. Although 7.3 percent of Americans living today have served, the number now in uniform is the smallest share of the population since the 1920s — 0.4 percent of our population.
As the number of men and women in uniform has decreased, has our commitment to their well-being also diminished? We are good at patriotic ceremonies and flag-wrapped support for our military members, especially at sporting events and holidays. But most of our annual rituals honor the dead. They do little for the living veterans among us who desperately need more than ceremonies.
According to the Veterans Administration, whose service to our wounded and surviving veterans has been inconsistent at best and routinely appalling, veterans face several issues. More than 35,000 veterans around the country are homeless. Thousands of Middle East veterans are disabled by injuries and need daily aid. Others require support to find meaningful employment. More disconcerting, 20 veterans a day die by suicide in America, a number that is increasing even as our veteran population shrinks.
Our veterans and active-duty service personnel don’t make the decision to go to war. They decide to serve their country, to serve us. They are veterans and soldiers 365 days a year, not just the holidays. And their families make sacrifices that most of us cannot imagine. Spouses hunt for jobs, frequently have to move and enroll their children in yet another school, and try to keep stressed families together. They are veterans, too. And Maine has the second highest percentage of veterans to population of all of the states.
Mainers have a long tradition of serving their country and those who serve. As we gather for a traditional American holiday, think about honoring living veterans and military personnel.
Respect their service to our country and us, think about helping their lives, and turn our patriotic sentiments into actions of support for veterans, active-duty military and their families. Require Congress to fund competent, compassionate support for our veterans. Hire a vet, take a vet to school, to work. Take a vet home. They have a lot to teach, and we have much to learn.