Veterans Need Opportunity

by Shaun Rieley

This Veterans Day marks 100 years since President Woodrow Wilson issued a statement commemorating the one-year anniversary of Armistice Day, which brought World War I to an end, and which ultimately became the day that we honor all American veterans. 

It read, in part:

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 nations.

That year, 1919, also saw the birth of the American Legion, an organization which remains one of the largest veterans organizations in the world, and which, along with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) once constituted a crucial part of the edifice of American civil society.

But in recent years, certain trends have led to a common perception that veterans, far from forming the backbone of American civil society, are instead victims of circumstance and in need of pity and charity.  In fact, the truth is nearly the opposite: since the time of the Revolution, veterans have constituted a vital part of American civic life, whether through participation in large, visible veterans groups, or through successful contributions to business, academia, politics, philanthropy, and nearly every other conceivable sector of society. For most, military service serves to strengthen their character, provide valuable training, instill values (and what used to be called “virtue”), and offer opportunities for leadership in difficult situations—all of which helps explain why veterans have proven to be potent and effective civic leaders in past generations.

This is not to deny that some veterans need assistance, and the country should do all it can to provide it when it is truly needed. But the default assumption that veterans are charity cases rather than stores of untapped potential is harmful, both to veterans themselves as well as to the country they served. 

Honoring veterans on Veterans Day is commendable, but honoring service is a year-round endeavor—and it begins by recognizing that veterans have much to contribute to American civic life. So this Veterans Day, consider honoring veterans by recalling that the thing that is most needful for veterans is not charity, but opportunity.