While Veterans Day is an occasion set aside to recognize present and past service, it is nearly impossible to separate memories of lost comrades. We celebrate the living, reflect solemnly on generations now fading, and recall others whose voices are forever silent.
This year is particularly significant because November 11 marks the centennial of the armistice that ended the First World War in 1918. The ravages of that conflict a century ago claimed 116,516 Americans, including 69 USDA volunteers who perished on battlefields, at sea, in the skies, and in disease-stricken camps that spared few.
They were young, dedicated public servants from all walks of life and above all—patriots of the highest caliber, deeply connected to our land.
When the United States entered World War I, more than 18,000 men and women worked at the Department of Agriculture. Although the Department could hardly spare them, nearly 3,000 (one out of every six) volunteered for duty during a critical period. Military service was paramount. They represented every bureau—laborers, foresters, clerks, scientists, professional and college-trained specialists.
We evoke the memory of our fallen USDA colleagues today, as well as another generation that faced challenges fifty years later from combat in Southeast Asia, to military service at home and overseas.
For some, the wounds are still raw. And perhaps not entirely from places like Khe Sanh, Hue, Tet, and My Lai. Instead of parades and “Welcome Home,” they faced turbulence from a backlash of anti-war marches and protests. Blamed for the mistakes of a few, their honorable service was ignored.
Healing this generation, many now graying and wrinkled with the passage of time, is an ongoing effort. USDA recently partnered with the Vietnam War Commemoration, as part of the work to recognize the service of some 7.2 million veterans who served from 1955 to 1975. The Department of Agriculture includes 2,200 members of that age group still serving proudly among some 10,000 veterans in our ranks.
Their legacy of dedication and sacrifice is why we celebrate Veterans Day—to recognize and honor all who have placed country above self, who have determined that the safety and security of others is more important than their own, and who have done their duty by taking their place in line just as generations of military men and women have done before them.
It's our turn to say, Thank you! And above all, Welcome home!