By The Rev. Bruce Epperly
My father was a member of what has been described as the “Greatest Generation.” A farm boy from Iowa, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, was quickly promoted to second lieutenant, and saw action in the Pacific in Saipan, Tinian and Korea. Like many of his generation, he came home, married, went to college through the GI Bill and raised a family. But, like many of his generation of GIs, he seldom spoke of his wartime experiences. The only evidence of his military service was my parents’ wedding photo, in which he was attired in his neatly creased officer’s uniform.
Like millions of other men and women in our nation’s history, my father answered the call to duty, risking his life for home and country. Like countless others, he quietly bore the scars of war. His encounters with death and suffering likely inspired his call to become a Baptist minister, committed to promoting what philosopher William James described as the “moral equivalent of war” –the struggle to rebuild the world, mend broken souls and stand on the side of the basic human values for which his generation fought.
Today, very few people realize that the origins of Veterans Day are in our nation’s gratitude for Allied victory in World War I. In the wake of “the war to end all wars,” President Woodrow Wilson made the following affirmation regarding Armistice Day, the precursor to Veterans Day: “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.”
Wilson, like many of his contemporaries, believed that “the war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men.”
While less than 20 years later nations prepared for another great war, and today our nation continues to engage in military action around the globe, these words remind us that peace and justice should be the goal of all national policies. They also remind us, in a time of growing individualism, polarization, and me-first politics and economics, that our national health depends on personal sacrifice – not just in time of war – but in daily commitments to civic responsibility, promotion of human rights and the common good, and sacrifices of time, talent and treasure for our nation’s well-being. Veterans Day is about gratitude, stewardship and personal sacrifice for the cause of securing a more perfect union and insuring that our nation remains a beacon of freedom and justice in the world.
On Veterans Day, let us proclaim our gratitude to those whose service in the military has secured our freedom and prosperity. Regardless of our political viewpoints, we need to support the people who fight in our nation’s wars. We need to say “thank you” in both word and deed. Our thanksgiving should include acts of direct support of the well-being of veterans and their families, especially those who have been injured or traumatized by war, and renewed commitments to causes dedicated to our nation’s common good and care for its most vulnerable citizens, many of whom are veterans.
Each day in our nation 22 veterans commit suicide. As many as 20 percent suffer from war-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Thousands of others are homeless, despite our nation’s prosperity. Families of veterans are hurting spiritually, emotionally, relationally and economically. Many feel themselves to be alone and abandoned by a nation that promised to support them.
As we consider the challenges facing veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, and other conflicts, it is easy, as the Hebraic prophets and Jesus noted, to speak of sacrifice, without making the commitment to sacrifice for the well-being of our neighbors. When Veterans Day is understood in the spirit of the biblical tradition, it reminds us that there is no such thing as rugged individualism. We are all in this together as we recognize that everything is a gift from God to be used for the well-being of others as well as our own kin. Sacrifice is not just the responsibility of veterans; it is required of all who claim to love God and country, always remembering that we need pray that we are on God’s side rather than uncritically assuming that God is on our side.
In the spirit of Wilson’s proclamation, justice and peace should guide our national and personal decision-making. Accordingly, remembrance of the sacrifices made by veterans throughout our nation’s history challenges us to ask: Do our individual and civic actions promote the overall well-being of our nation’s peoples and a just peace among nations? Do we focus on our own welfare to the exclusion of our neighbor’s well-being in body, mind and spirit? What are we willing to sacrifice so that others may experience our nation’s bounties?
On Veterans Day, let us be grateful and let our gratitude inspire us to generosity and commitment to the well-being of our nation, most especially its most vulnerable citizens and veterans who suffer from the ravages of war. Then, our love of nation will take us beyond self-interest to the affirmation of our responsibility to seek the well-being of others with the same passion as we seek our own and to claim our role as God’s partners in healing our nation and the earth.
The Rev. Epperly is pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville, and the author of 40 books, including “Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians,” “Jonah: When God Changes” and “Experiencing God in Suffering: A Journey with Job.” He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.