November 11 is the day the Great War ended on the Western Front, in 1918. It had been the deadliest conflict in human history, with 16 million dead and 21 million wounded. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and when the shooting stopped, the world stepped back in horror. Depending on which statistics you believe, the U.K. lost more than two percent of its entire population in the Great War; France lost more than four percent; Serbia lost more than 16 percent.
The holiday was called Armistice Day, but the Armistice didn't last. The Second World War left between 62 and 78 million people dead, depending on how you count Stalin's victims. Since then the United States has fought in military operations in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Cambodia, El Salvador, Lebanon, Grenada, Honduras, Bolivia, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Haiti, Zaire, Yemen, Macedonia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Colombia, and Pakistan.
You probably don't know what the United States was doing in each of those operations. I don't, although they're all in the history books, and most of the details are public information. Chances are good that many of the military personnel who fought in these operations didn't know what they were there for, either.
Which is why we celebrate Veterans' Day today, instead of Armistice Day. Today we honor the men and women who signed up (or were drafted, in earlier generations) to risk their lives in the service of their country, whether or not they fully understood or agreed with the goals of the policy-makers who sent them to war. It's a form of heroism that goes beyond reason or logic to the deepest primal instincts of humans: protect the tribe.
Here are five tangible ways you can show your gratitude.
1. Make a contribution to the military relief charities. The Armed Forces Relief Trust collects donations on behalf of the four Military Aid Societies: the Air Force Aid Society, Army Emergency Relief, Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. A shocking number of military families live in poverty. An enlisted servicemember's salary is not enough to support a family, and military deployments create thousands of single-parent families for months at a time. These families are often far from their original homes, without the resources and support they'd have if they lived closer to grandparents, siblings, school friends, etc. We shouldn't need the military relief charities, but we do. Support them.
2. Make a contribution to the Armed Services YMCA. The ASYMCA serves junior enlisted personnel and their families from 31 facilities around the world, offering not only the usual YMCA recreation and fitness programs but also childcare, hospital assistance, spouse support services, food services, computer training classes, health and wellness services, and holiday meals. The American Institute of Philanthropy rates it one of the nation's best-run charities, too.
3. Raise money for a Fisher House™, and/or donate your frequent flyer miles to Hero Miles. Fisher Houses are "comfort homes" on the grounds of major military and veterans' medical centers, which allow families to stay near their loved ones as they go through long-term medical treatments and rehabilitation. No family pays to stay at a Fisher House. The Fisher House Foundation also sponsors scholarships for military children and administers the Hero Miles program, which makes frequent flyer miles available to Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom hospitalized service members and their families. You can donate your miles here, and organize your own local fundraiser for the Fisher House Foundation by following the guidelines here.
4. Volunteer with the USO. The name "USO" might call up visions of big-band dances and sailors jitterbugging with the Andrews Sisters, but today's USO is just as important to today's military as it was to previous generations. The more than 130 USO locations around the world are places American service personnel can go to take a shower, check their email, call their families, watch American television. Never forget how young most enlisted personnel are; they're teenagers, or barely out of their teens, and most of them are away from home for the first time in their lives. USOs are safe places where English is spoken and no one has to apologize for being an American. USO volunteers do everything from help soldiers navigate strange airports to assembling care packages for the holidays. Check here for a location near you.
5. Volunteer or donate at your local VA hospital. Medical care is free to veterans, but the small comforts of a hospital stay aren't: television, newspapers, magazines, books, phone calls. Veterans' hospitals need library materials, phone cards, coffee supplies, new and gently used clothing, new board games, decks of cards, and cash to provide their patients with personal care items like shaving cream, razors, and deodorant. Find your local VA hospital here.