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–by Joanna Hallac, Manager of Historical Programs, USCHS

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the 18th year, an armistice was announced, bringing World War One–the Great War–to an end. Even though fighting would continue and the treaty bringing it to an official close was yet to come, November 11th has been known as Armistice Day to much of the world since 1919. Most countries in the world observe this day, and we are no different; however, we now call it Veterans Day rather than Armistice Day so as to pay tribute to all of our brave men and women who have fought for our country in war.

U.S. soldiers during WWI (Truman Library)

No matter what one calls it, the thing to remember is that in setting November 11th aside as a holiday, we are acknowledging the importance and sanctity of the armistice that brought an end to our world’s first widespread and total war and those who sacrificed to “make the world safe for democracy,” as Wilson so aptly put it in 1917, as well as all those who came before and would follow after. Although Wilson first proclaimed Armistice Day on November 11, 1919, it was not until 1938 that Congress enacted a law setting aside each November 11th as a legal holiday. While Armistice Day had been a day primarily to honor veterans of World War I, after World War II—the largest mobilization of American forces in our history—and the Korean War, Congress in 1954 amended its earlier act and replaced “armistice” with “veterans” to ensure that we would commemorate all of our veterans from that year forward.

Later that year President Eisenhower issued the first Veteran’s Day proclamation, which called for Americans to observe the day in honor of all of our veterans (from 1971 to 1978 the day was celebrated on a Monday, regardless of the date, to ensure a 3-day weekend for federal employees, but people felt strongly about celebrating it on November 11th, regardless of the day of the week, and so it was changed back by President Ford). Eisenhower also took the opportunity in his proclamation to designate the Administrator of Veterans’ Affairs to head the Veteran’s Day National Committee, which had the job of planning ceremonies of national observance, a precedent that has remained even after the VA was designated a cabinet level department in 1989.

In thinking about what would make for the best tribute to our veterans and those still actively fighting for our country, I thought that speaking to an actual veteran might be the most worthwhile exercise of all. I don’t have many veterans in my family and I grew up in a town in Connecticut where the vast majority of kids went directly to college after graduating from high school, few if any considering military service at any point. Years later, I ended up back in my hometown teaching history at the same high school I attended, and just as when I was a student there, college, not military service, was still the destination for almost every student I had ever taught, except one—Max Iacova. Naturally, when I thought of this idea for a post, I thought first and foremost about him.

I have kept in touch with Max since his graduation in June 2009 and his deployment to Afghanistan as a member of the Connecticut Army National Guard that fall, and he very graciously agreed to answer a few questions and share a few of his memories of his time fighting in Afghanistan. Here is the text of my informal interview with him (please note that I’ve made slight changes to some of his exact wording and punctuation for the purposes of eliminating some abbreviations and to better fit this format):

Me: Can you first give us your background information? Name, rank, etc…
Max: My name is Army Specialist Peter Max Iacova. I was an infantryman with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment of the Connecticut Army National Guard (CTARNG). I was deployed to Laghman Province, Afghanistan from 2009-2010, assigned to Scout Platoon, Headquarters & Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment. The Scout Platoon was the sniper and reconnaissance platoon for the whole battalion.

Me: Why was military service important to you?
Max: Military service was important, I suppose because my family was rooted in it. I grew up living with my grandmother and being surrounded by all of her brothers and sisters. Every one of her brothers and her husband served in World War Two. These were the people I grew up around, so a sense of duty and patriotism was instilled in me at a young age. I always knew I wanted to serve in the military.

Max (right) on patrol in Afghanistan

Me: What was the most important lesson that you learned from your time in Afghanistan or your military service/training in general that you think will help you the most as you go through your life and why?
Max: The most important lesson I learned was to appreciate the gift of life because until you’ve seen it lost firsthand, you don’t realize how easily it can be snatched from you. I was always a risk-free, carefree type of individual—I swore I was invincible. Being deployed put all of that in perspective for me.

Me: What is the one thing you wish people here knew that they don’t about military service or fighting in Afghanistan?
Max: Probably nothing, to be honest. I volunteered, just like everyone else who was beside me. I fought for what I believed in, and if people choose to not follow or care what’s going on overseas I’m fine with that because it’s their freedom of choice, and freedom’s what I fought for.

Me: Can you share one brief memory from your time in Afghanistan that still stands out to you?
Max: Sadly, the one memory that sticks out more than anything else to me is when one of my squad leaders was killed. Staff Sergeant Edwin Rivera was one of the greatest men I knew. He didn’t have to go on this deployment, but he opted to because he knew we were lacking in experienced leadership. He was a great friend and one of the best soldiers I ever knew. I carry him with me wherever I go.

Me: Lastly, was it difficult to transition back to “normal” once you got back? Do you think we, as a collective American society, do enough to support and help our veterans, especially those who come home wounded or psychologically “broken”?
Max: The military does try to help in the transition, no matter what people may say. I was injured and spent five months in Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I left there having nothing but great things to say about their medical team. They truly did care about us and always put us first. I think the society we live in now treats veterans far better than they were treated in Vietnam. When I saw anti-war protests in DC, the protesters still would thank us for what we did. That is vastly different from what I would have experienced in the late 60’s-early 70’s. Like I said before, I volunteered to serve and I don’t expect anything in return. I love my country and I love what we stand for, that’s enough for me.

I would be remiss if I didn’t first thank Max immensely for sharing what I’m sure are still very difficult memories to deal with; second, I want to say how proud I am of the tremendous young man he has become, sacrificing so much and asking nothing in return. Max is now in training to become a member of the Baltimore Police Department, once again making the decision to devote himself to keeping our citizens safe, this time here at home.

Lastly, as many of us prepare to have Friday off from work in observance of Veterans Day, I think it is important to once again make sure we are remembering why. As I said last month when I wrote about the controversial observance of Columbus Day, let us not just use it as a means to sleep in, run errands, or get a long weekend, but instead let us use it as an opportunity to remember those who have fought and who still fight for our country, our values, and our way of life, and to thank them deeply for their service.

Here are a few statistics to keep in mind as you go through your day on Friday, whether you have the day off or not:

  • As of June 2011, there are 1,425,113 active duty military in the U.S.
  • As of September 30, 2010, there were 22.7 million veterans (a number that has clearly increased since, but these are the most recent that the I could find from the Dept. of Veterans Affairs)
  • Approximately 1.7 million of our World War II veterans are still alive out of the approximately 16 million that served. It is estimated that at this rate (WWII vets are dying at a rate of 740 a day, according to the VA) all WWII vets will have died by 2036.
  • 23% of the homeless population are veterans, and 47% of homeless vets served in the Vietnam era.
  • 8.1% of current veterans are women.
  • The unemployment rate of veterans who have served since 2001—called Gulf War-era II veterans—was 11.5% in 2010.

Do you have a friend or family member who has served or is serving? Feel free to share a story or memory about them with us here; and certainly, if they are still living, be sure to give them a call tomorrow and see how they’re doing and to thank them for their service.

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