The nation’s first four-star female general led New Yorkers in commemorating Veterans Day, part of the annual display of thanks to those who have served their country and an indication of the changing face of the military.
Led by President Obama, civil and military officials across the nation placed wreaths on monuments to honor those who served in wars that have marked the nation’s turbulent history. They have also backed more employment opportunities for veterans.
“We join as one people to honor a debt we can never fully repay,” Obama said at Arlington National Cemetery after the wreath ceremony.
In New York, Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, who retired last year after 37 years in the Army, led the parade up Fifth Avenue to honor veterans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 21.2 million military veterans as of 2012 in the United States. Of that group 1.6 million are women.
It was in 1948 that President Truman officially ended discrimination in the armed forces and the eventual end of its segregation by race. In 2012, those identifying themselves as non-Hispanic whites made up 79.6% of the veterans, with African Americans the second-largest group at 11.3%. Latinos were about 5.7%.
Among the ceremonies around the nation is a commemoration for two of the original Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American aviators in World War II. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray and congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton will place a wreath at the African American Civil War Memorial. A ceremony will follow for two Tuskegee Airmen who are Washington, D.C., residents at the African American Civil War Museum.
Norton will present the Congressional Gold Medal to one of the airmen; the other was honored in a similar ceremony in 2007.
The centerpiece of the nation’s observance is the traditional televised laying of a wreath by the president at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. The usual 21-gun artillery salute was fired and the president joined by representatives of all of the services, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, as well as Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki and others.
Obama paid tribute to one of the nation's oldest veterans, Richard Overton, 107, “This is the life of one American veteran, living proud and strong in the land he helped keep free,” Obama said during proceedings at Arlington.
Earlier, the president also hosted a Veterans Day breakfast at the White House for those who have served in the military and their families.
What today is known as Veterans Day began as Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919, to commemorate the end of World War I. Congress created an annual observance in 1926 and Nov. 11 became a national holiday in 1939.
But it wasn’t until President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of all Allied forces in World War II that it became Veterans Day in 1954. Veterans Day was designed to remember all those who served in the military while Memorial Day, at the end of May, commemorates those who died while serving.
Veterans are still alive from the range of wars that have been the landmarks of the 20th and 21st centuries. According to the Census Bureau, there are 7.4 million Vietnam-era veterans and 5.4 million who served during the Gulf wars. About 1.6 million served in World War II and 2.3 million served in Korea. About a quarter, or 5.3 million veterans, served only in peacetime.
The military has increasingly become a career so it is not uncommon for soldiers to have served in more than one conflict. More than 54,000 are still alive after serving during the Vietnam era and both Gulf wars. That is statistically the same as the about 50,000 who served in three wars, World War II, the Korean War and during the Vietnam era, according to the Census Bureau.
Veterans have long been a political force within the United States. Just two years after the Continental Army was demobilized in 1781, veterans took to the streets demanding back pay, forcing the U.S. Congress to flee from the then-capital of Philadelphia to New Jersey.
The country began paying military bonuses as soon as 1776. Only the veterans of the Spanish-American War did not receive such payments. By 1932, veterans were marching on Washington, the so-called Bonus Army, seeking to redeem bonuses promised to them in certificates issued by the government. At least two veterans died in skirmishes with federal troops.
Modern restaurants and merchants have also offered various bonuses, such as free meals, to attract veterans’ business.
According to the Census Bureau, 14.7 million veterans voted in the 2012 presidential election, a relatively large turnout of 70%.
In an op-ed, First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of the vice president, called on businesses to hire veterans.
“Our veterans are some of the most highly-skilled, hardest-working employees around. They thrive in fast-paced, high-pressure environments, and they’ve got extensive experience building teams, managing complex logistics, and dealing with cutting-edge technology. In short, our veterans are tremendous assets for our businesses, so we challenged companies across America to hire as many veterans as possible.”