Happy Veterans Day! Facts to Reflect on in a Weird National Moment

navajo code talker veterans in veterans day parade
A Navajo Code Talker veteran in the New York Veterans Day Parade in 2012 | Cpl. Bryan Nygaard, Marine Corps/Flickr
A Navajo Code Talker veteran in the New York Veterans Day Parade in 2012 | Cpl. Bryan Nygaard, Marine Corps/Flickr

I know, I know. We did the thing this week, and to call the United States of America weird right now would be an understatement. Still, no matter your politics, today is a day for reflection. It's Veterans Day, the federal holiday devoted to men and women who serve in our military, honoring their sacrifice and courage in face of conflict around the world. Here's everything you need to know about why you probably have a day off, or can at least enjoy some Veterans Day freebies here and there.

Why was it created?

President Woodrow Wilson first introduced "Armistice Day" to commemorate the end of World War I on November 11, 1919. "To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory," he wrote in a statement, continuing, "both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations."

Congress formalized it as an annual observance in 1926, and by 1938 it had become a federal holiday. Following World War II, the first "Veterans Day" celebration to honor all veterans -- not just those who fought in World War I -- was held in Birmingham, Alabama, and was the brainchild of World War I vet Raymond Weeks. Congress officially renamed November 11th "Veterans Day" in 1954. The date changed to the fourth Monday in October for several years in the wake of the Vietnam War, but Congress changed it back to November 11 in 1978 -- that's why you have Friday off this year and not some other day.

It's important because veterans face serious issues

With increased rates of PTSD, depression, homelessness, and suicide, veterans today are one of America's most at-risk groups. For many, reintegrating them into civilian life can be an arduous task, and most Americans go about their daily lives in ignorance of it. As Desmin Borges, who plays a veteran on FX show You're the Worsttold Vulture: "I found out that a couple of my really close friends' dads who fought in previous wars have PTSD, and I've known them for like 18 years and I had no idea."

It's not just the veterans themselves who need a hand, either, but their families, too. No matter what we disagree on as a country, no one believes the children of veterans and military personnel should be left behind.

How can I help veterans?

At the most basic level, empathy is a great start. Go to a Veterans Day parade. Talk to people and listen. Volunteer or donate to one of the many non-profit organizations and charities devoted to helping veterans. Note that some are more scrupulous than others, so do your research and ask questions.

Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day

This shouldn't be too hard, but inevitably, every year, folks on social media or in real life confuse the two nonetheless. Veterans Day is a day designed to honor and support people who are alive who served in our military. Memorial Day is about commemorating those killed in combat.

But that's not all...

It's also worth mentioning that plenty of veterans also honor their fellow soldiers who've also died, too. The writer and retired veteran Lt. Col. Robert Bateman once explained why:

I like to spell it Veteran's Day. That apostrophe, the possessive, feels right. We, the dumbasses that wear or wore uniforms, own it. We went to war—for you, for us, for a whole host of reasons. Some of those reasons may be right, some no doubt wrong, but in the end they all carried one unifying principle.

We signed up because we believed in America, because we believed there was something right, regardless of if the President was a Democrat or a Republican, or our congressional representative said this thing or that. Hell, most of us had no idea, on the day we committed our life, who our congressperson even was.

We knew, we know, one thing: this experiment matters.

It is a flawed experiment, this nation of ours. It has gaps and fissions. I am pretty sure it leaks. But we created it. We killed each other to make it better. We are still trying to fix it, and odds are that we always will be.

So thank a vet for their service today

It's polite. It takes five seconds. They might even call you sir or ma'am. Don't make it weird.

Eric Vilas-Boas is a writer and editor at Thrillist and previously worked at the non-profit DonorsChoose.org -- which has done lots of work to support military-serving public schools. Tweet him at @e_vb_.