My wife and I are just back from a long weekend in Las Vegas, where we were able to visit with our oldest son and some of his friends. They were there for the Annual Conference of SEG – the Society of Exploration Geophysicists. Along the way we were able to catch up with a boyhood friend I hadn’t seen in over 25 years. The visiting and catching up was wonderful; Vegas itself on the other hand, not so much. It is a weird, even bizarre, town. Definitely not for everyone.
Even its name suggests the surreal. It reminds me of the great exchange in the all-time classic movie Casablanca.
Claude Renault: “What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca? “
Rick Blaine: “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.”
Renault: “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.’
Blaine: “I was misinformed.”
Well, Las Vegas means “the meadows.” Meadows? What meadows? It’s in the freaking desert.
Nonetheless, after everyone had left and gone back to their lives, we stayed an extra day; and a surprisingly wonderful Monday it was, spent mostly out west of town at Red Rock Canyon, hiking and exploring the desert with its amazing set of geological formations, complete with a very visible fault line running right through it. How many Vegas tourists see that?
And, as it was a day of respectful honor and remembrance, the entrance fee of $7 per person was waived! Lucky us.
A day of reverence and respect, set aside to honor those who have given so much. From way Down Under, in Australia and New Zealand, to the far north of Canada; from India in the East to the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in Western Europe they call it Remembrance Day: A day to remember those who died during World War I.
Remembrance Day falls on the 11th of November, coinciding with the anniversary of the Armistice that ended that War – Called the Great War at the time: who would have thought there’d be another world war? This holiday is shared from France and Belgium to Serbia as well, although in those places it is called – perhaps more appropriately – Armistice Day.
The United States also has a holiday on this day. For the US, it is subtly different in several ways. Foremost, it is not to honor those “who have given the last full measure of devotion” in service to their country. We have a different day for that: Memorial Day. It started out like Armistice Day, but shortly after World War II a movement was begun to change it to a day of honor and respect for all who have ever served in the Armed Services in any capacity. In 1954 the change from Armistice Day to Veterans Day became official.
This day is different in the US in other ways. We have no moment of silence to honor our Veterans, or those who have fallen. Instead we have sales at the mall. It is a day off work for banks, stock exchanges, most schools and government employees so that they can … play, have fun, go shopping, sleep in late, catch up on chores or gossip … anything but honor a veteran.
When we think of the veteran, we ought to think beyond our own borders and national interests. For example, I recently came across the story of one young Henricus “Henry” van Genugten, of Eindhoven—a large city (by Dutch standards) in the eastern Netherlands. He was a 30-year old automobile mechanic, married with a young son, during the Nazi occupation. He was also part of the Resistance, occasionally participating in sabotage of communication and railway lines. In September, 1943, he was captured, sentenced to a prompt death, and subsequently withheld information despite being tortured. The night before his execution, he wrote this letter to his young wife.
“This morning at 7AM, the execution verdict was given. Yes dearest, it is sad that I haven’t been allowed the opportunity to see you and say goodbye, but what can you expect from the Germans? Will you take good care of Matthij and tell him about me? I was so fond of that boy and would dearly have loved to see him grow up. Hold your head high and move on with the loving supportfrom your son, through whom I shall continue to live. Thank you for all the sweet things we have experienced together. We have had a pleasant life although it was all too short. Don’t grieve for too long because life goes on but please think of me from time to time.
“There are six of us here in the cell, so I am not alone. Three of the men, Gerrit, Jan and Bennie, are also waiting to be shot. One day the Netherlands will be free so please don’t forget the sacrifices we have made. I want to say so much to you but it isn’t easy. I am quiet and calm and hope to die as I have lived. The others feel the same.
“When the insurance money pays out, please put it towards Matthij’s education. Give my heartfelt greetings to my brother Louis [Lodewijk], and tell him not to forget his little nephew. The same goes for my parents, your mother and father, family, friends and acquaintances.
“… once again, thanks for everything my love. Math, when you grow up and become a big boy, please bear my name with honor and please be sure to take care of your mother for me. I send you both many kisses and wish you luck in whichever direction life’s road may take
– from your very loving husband and daddy, Harry.” 
Van Genugten was shot the next morning, his body never found.
One year later, Eindhoven was liberated by Americans – the 101st Airborne, 506th PIR (including the Band of Brothers) – as part of Operation Market Garden, September 18-19, 1944. It was the first significant city in the Netherlands to be liberated. Sadly, Market Garden was otherwise largely a huge failure. The country was not liberated, the Wehrmacht was not cut off from lines of communication, and a direct invasion path to Berlin was not established – despite tremendous sacrifice and loss of life, limb, materiel and morale. [Read more about Market Garden here: Connections: Market Garden to Dark]
And that’s something I can’t help but consider when I ponder our exceptional country’s (and Canada’s) men and women who have served in the military. It’s not just that they defended our countries and way of life – they gave their all so that people in other countries could be free to live their way of life too.
On September 18 every year in Eindhoven a flame is lit in remembrance and gratitude. In Arnhem, some 80km (50mi) north, children march out to the cemetery with flowers to decorate the graves of the Canadians, British and Polish paratroopers who tried to liberate their city.
Veterans Day. What comes to mind? A day off work, or school, or a sale down at Kohls? Do we appreciate and honor our veterans as much as the Dutch and the Belgians?
In the last 165 years, the United States has not fought a war of aggrandizement. We have liberated American Blacks, the Cubans and the Filipinos (twice), the Chinese and the Dutch and Kuwaitis. Kosovo and Bosnia are at an uneasy peace alongside Serbia thanks to US-led coalitions. Grenada. Denmark. The Netherlands. Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos. Malaysia.
Sorry, but even Iraq and Afghanistan have been liberated from foul evil leadership, mostly by the United States. Yes, the French, and the Austrians. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t include even the Japanese, Germans and Italians, themselves, who have been freed by US (and Canadian and British) “blood, toil sweat and tears.”
By “winning” the cold war (with some help) you can add to the list: Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Belarus, East Germany (which makes twice for them), the Ukraine, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and a whole bunch of ‘Stans, including Afghanistan (which makes twice for them too).
Yes, some mistakes were made. Some of those efforts didn’t turn out so well; even when we were victorious, we sometimes “lost the peace.” Good intentions do not make up for mistakes. That does not change the overwhelming evidence that the United States, its military and state department arrive as liberators, not as conquerors. The intent is always to leave, eventually; or at least (as in the case of Korea and Japan) to leave the country to run its own affairs and achieve its own form of democratic government.
Yes, unapologetically I intone: we are an exceptional nation, and we have been blessed with an exceptional military.
The last few paragraphs, especially that last sentence, might raise some hairs and ruffle some feathers. And that’s something else that makes our day of Remembrance, Veterans Day, different than for other nations. We don’t appreciate our veterans and history as much as other nations do. I’m not saying, for example, that the Dutch appreciate their veterans more than we appreciate ours – I’m saying that THEY appreciate OUR veterans more than we do.
Yes, we are a different kind of country. Kind of like Vegas is a different kind of city.
When the warrior returns, from the battle afar,
To the home and the country he nobly defended,
O! warm be the welcome to gladden his ear,
And loud be the joy that his perils are ended.” -- Francis Scott Key
Never miss a chance to thank a Veteran!
I wish you Peace.
Joe Girard © 2012
 Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Rock_Canyon_National_Conservation_Area
 Liberation of Eindhoven: http://www.506infantry.org/hiswwii/his1stbnwwiiphoto16.html
 Story of van Genugten from the book “Deliver us from Darkness”, by Ian Gardner.
Images: The Great War Ends (WW I), November 11, 1918…..
 American Military Cemetery, Luxembourg