Opinion: Veterans Day 2010, the history and Obama’s words to future veterans serving in Korea

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Veterans Day didn’t start out that way.

Originally, which was 91 years ago, it was called Armistice Day to mark the official cessation of hostilities in World War I, a.k.a. the Great War until that time. That ceasefire came on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. (See photo below of U.S. troops in France waiting out literally the last two minutes of World War I.)

The actual peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, wasn’t signed until the following June 28. But that ensuing first fall of peace, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 Armistice Day, a time for prayer, thanksgiving and appreciation for the sacrifices of those lost. Parades and civic observances were involved, but normal business was to cease only for a few minutes around the armistice time.

Nineteen years later Congress turned Nov. 11 into a federal holiday, primarily to....

...honor veterans of the misnamed War to End All Wars. And then in 1954, following the end of the Korean War and nine years after the globe’s greatest mobilization of military forces for World War II, the word ‘veterans’ was substituted for ‘armistice’ in the holiday legislation. Not coincidentally, President Obama, fresh from an overnight stop in his childhood homeland of Indonesia, spoke (full text, as usual, below) to about 1,400 American troops and guests in Korea. He talked about the enduring U.S. and Korean military and political alliance -- never mind the trouble getting an enhanced bilateral trade agreement.


As Sen. John McCain, himself a veteran, awkwardly noted during the 2008 presidential campaign, the U.S. continues to maintain about 28,000 troops on that divided peninsula. In fact, nearly 60 years after fighting ceased in that lumpy land, there still is no formal peace treaty.

Somehow, if you can imagine such a thing, the original meaning of Veterans (Armistice) Day got lost in the burning desire of U.S. federal employees to get another three-day weekend. So as with the inconvenient birthdays of Presidents Washington and Lincoln, Veterans Day was observed on a nearby Monday.

However, it turns out this twisting of the honored day for the convenience of modern-day folks offended many people. So in 1975, President Ford, whose July 14 birthday is celebrated in France as Bastille Day, signed legislation mandating that Veterans Day be celebrated on the actual Nov. 11, whatever darned day of the week it is.

President Obama appropriately marked Veterans Day this year on Thursday, Nov. 11, in Korea, which was actually Wednesday, Nov. 10, back home.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Veterans Day Remarks by President Obama at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea,
as provided by the White House
Hello, Yongsan! Let’s give another round of applause to Army Specialist Courtney Newby. Thank you for that introduction, and thank you for your service.

I also want to thank our outstanding representatives here in the Republic of Korea: Ambassador Kathleen Stephens and General Skip Sharp. Congressman Peter Roskam from the great state of Illinois is here with us today. And our great friend and ally from the Republic of Korea is here, General Jung.

It is an honor to be here at Yongsan Garrison. As President of the United States, I have no greater privilege than serving as Commander-in-Chief of the finest military the world has ever known. And on this Veterans’ Day, there’s no place I’d rather be than right here with U.S. Forces Korea. We’ve got the 8th Army in the house. We’ve got members of the 7th Air Force. We’ve got U.S. Navy Forces Korea. We’ve got just about every Marine in South Korea here today. And we’ve got a whole lot of DOD civilians, too.

It’s also good to see some spouses and family members in the audience. You bear the burdens of your loved one’s service in ways that are often immeasurable – an empty chair at the dinner table or another holiday when Mom or Dad is some place far away.

So I want you to know that this nation recognizes your sacrifice, and we are grateful for your service, too.

On this day, we honor every man and woman who has ever worn the uniform of the United States of America. We salute fallen heroes, and keep in our prayers those who are still in harm’s way – like the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We recall acts of uncommon bravery and selflessness, but we also remember that honoring those who’ve served is about more than the words we say on Veterans’ Day or Memorial Day. It’s about how we treat our veterans every single day of the year. It’s about making sure they have the care they need and the benefits they have earned. It’s about serving all of you as well as you’ve served the United States of America.

This has been one of my highest priorities since taking office. It’s why I asked for one of the largest increases in the VA budget in the past thirty years. It’s why we’ve dramatically increased funding for veterans’ health care. It’s why we’re improving care for wounded warriors, especially those with Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury. It’s why we’re working to eliminate the backlog at the VA and reforming the entire process with electronic claims and medical records. It’s why there are fewer homeless veterans on the streets than there were two years ago, and why there are nearly 400,000 veterans and their families who are going to college because of the post-9/11 GI Bill.

So I want all of you to know that when you come home, your country will be there be for you. That is the commitment I make as your Commander-in-Chief. That is the sacred trust between the United States of America and all who defend its ideals.

It’s a trust that’s been forged in places far from our shores: from the beaches of Europe to the jungles of Vietnam; from the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to the peninsula where we stand today.

Sixty years have come and gone since the Communist armies first crossed the 38th parallel. Within three days, they had captured Seoul. By the end of the next month, they had driven the Korean army all the way south, to Pusan. And from where things stood in the summer of 1950, it didn’t appear that the Republic of Korea would survive much longer.

At the time, many Americans had probably never heard of Korea. And it had only been five years since we finished fighting the last war. But we knew that if we allowed the unprovoked invasion of a free nation, all free nations would be threatened. And so, for the first time since its creation, the United Nations voted to use armed force to repel the attack from North Korea.

On September 15th, 1950, American forces landed at Inchon. The conditions they fought under were some of the worst that Americans had ever experienced. The temperature reached more than thirty below in the winter and over one hundred degrees in the summer. In many places, Americans and our Korean allies were outgunned and outmanned, sometimes by as much as 20 to 1. At one point, they were hit with 24,000 artillery shells a day. By the end, the fighting had sometimes devolved into trench warfare, waged on hands and knees in the middle of the night.

And still, our soldiers fought on. Nearly 37,000 Americans would give their lives in Korea. But after three years of fighting, our forces finally succeeded in driving the invading armies back over the 38th parallel. One war historian said that while he believed Korea was “the greatest of all trials” for American troops, their performance was “nothing short of miraculous.”

Many of the men responsible for this miracle were only teenagers. Others had just finished fighting in the Second World War. Most would go home to raise their families and live out their lives. And sixty-two veterans of the Korean War have returned to be with us today.

Gentlemen, we are honored by your presence. We are grateful for your service. And the world is better off because of what you did here. And for those who can, I would ask you to stand and accept the thanks of a grateful nation.

I also want to recognize the Korean soldiers who battled side by side with our own. These men fought bravely and sacrificed greatly for their country, and some of them have joined us here as well. Thank you, friends. Katchi Kapshida. We go together.

The veterans who have traveled here today saw battle at the Inchon landing and the Pusan Perimeter. You survived the bloodshed at Heartbreak Ridge and the ambush at the Chosin Reservoir. At one point in that battle, the enemy tossed a grenade into a trench where multiple marines lay wounded. That’s when Private Hector Cafferata, ran into that trench, picked up that grenade, and threw it back. It detonated in his hand, severely injuring his arm. But because of what he did, Private Cafferata saved the lives of his fellow marines. He received the Medal of Honor for his heroism, and he is here with us today.

So many of you served your nation with such courage and commitment. You left your homes and your families and you risked your lives in what has often been called “The Forgotten War.”
Well today, I want you to know this: We remember. We remember your courage. We remember your sacrifice. And the legacy of your service lives on in a free and prosperous Republic of Korea.

Real change comes slowly, and many people don’t live to see the difference they’ve made in the lives of others. For the men and women who have served on this peninsula, all you have to do is look around.

Whether you’re a veteran who landed in 1950 or one of the troops at Yongsan today, the security you’ve provided has made possible one of the greatest success stories of our time.

There are Koreans today who can still remember when this country was little more than rice paddies and villages that would flood during monsoon season. Not two generations later, highways and skyscrapers line the horizon of one of the fastest-growing, most prosperous democracies in all the world – progress that has transformed the lives of millions.

One of these people is a man who went from grinding poverty to the presidency of this country. When I visited last year, President Lee shared with me his story of what it was like to grow up poor as a child in Korea. And he said, “I hope the American people understand how grateful we are for what you’ve done, because we would not be the extraordinarily strong, prosperous nation we are were it not for the sacrifices made by the men and women of the United States military.”

Because the Korean War ended where it began geographically, some used the phrase “Die for a Tie” to describe the sacrifice of those who fought here. But as we look around at this thriving democracy and its grateful, hopeful citizens, one thing is clear:

This was no tie. This was a victory. It was a victory then, and it is a victory today. Sixty years later, a friendship that was forged in war has become an alliance that has led to greater security and untold progress – not only in the Republic of Korea, but throughout Asia. And that is something for everyone here to be extraordinarily proud of.

But it is also a reminder of what still lies on the other side of the 38th parallel. Today, the Korean peninsula provides the world’s clearest contrast between a society that is open and one that is closed; between a nation that is dynamic and growing, and a government that would rather starve its people than change. It’s a contrast so stark you can see it from space, as the brilliant lights of Seoul give way to utter darkness in the north.

This is not an accident of history. It is a direct result of the path that has been taken by North Korea – a path of confrontation and provocation; one that includes the pursuit of nuclear weapons and the attack on the Cheonan last March.

In the wake of this aggression, Pyongyang should not be mistaken: the United States will never waver in our commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea. The alliance between our two nations has never been stronger, and along the with the rest of the world, we have made it clear that North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will only lead to more isolation and less security.

But there is another path available to North Korea. If they choose to fulfill their international obligations and commitments to the international community, they will have the chance to offer their people lives of growing opportunity instead of crushing poverty – a future of greater security and greater respect; a future that includes the prosperity and opportunity available to citizens on this end of the Korean peninsula.

Until that day comes, the world can take comfort in knowing that the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces are standing watch on freedom’s frontier. In doing so, you carry on the legacy of service and sacrifice we saw from those who landed here all those years ago – a legacy we honor and cherish on this Veterans’ Day.

At the Korean War Memorial in Washington, there is a plaque right near the inscription that lists the number of Americans who were killed, wounded, mission in action, and held as prisoners of war. It says “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”

A country they never knew and a people they never met. I know of no better words to capture the selflessness and generosity of every man or woman who has ever worn the uniform of the United States of America. At a time when it has never been more tempting or accepted to pursue narrow self-interest and personal ambition, you remind us that there are few things more American than doing what we can to make a difference in the lives of others.

That is why you will always be the best that America has to offer the world. And that is why people who never met you and never knew you will always be grateful to the friend and ally they found in America. Thank you for your service, may God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America. ####