Veterans Day: We honor the 20 million veterans with us today and the millions more in our past

Veterans Day, which falls on Saturday this year, is set aside to reflect on military service to our country. Every American should take a moment to appreciate and honor the service and sacrifice of all who have served in the U.S. military. We owe them more than we can repay.

Throughout American history, approximately 45 million Americans have served in our armed forces during times of war, along with additional millions who served in peacetime. Since 1775 close to 1.4 million members of the military have died in our wars and military actions.

The Census Bureau reports there are currently about 20 million U.S. military veterans living in the United States out of a population of 326 million.

My military service began on Dec. 2, 1972 and I had the honor and privilege of wearing the Navy uniform for over 32 years. Now I am proud to call myself a military veteran.

You cannot know what it’s like to serve in our military unless you have experienced it. To gain an idea of the sacrifice involved, I would urge everyone to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The memorial lists the names of the 58,307 American armed services members who lost their lives in that war.

It is difficult to contemplate 58,307. It may resonate as nothing more than a number, a historical figure, a battlefield statistic, but when you walk that wall, touch the names, find a shipmate, friend or family member and reflect on the enormity of that wall it has a significant impact.

The number 58,307 takes on real meaning when tied to a name – and every name on that wall was someone’s son, daughter, father, husband, wife, brother, sister or friend. Imagine the grieving when the death announcement was delivered to loved ones.

The Vietnam War was a defining period for those of my generation. I encourage you to visit the memorial. It will have an emotional impact and make you appreciate Veterans Day, patriotism, and putting service above self and sacrifice for country.

In my tenure in the Navy from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War, one of the most significant changes was ending the draft and going to an all-volunteer military. The bar has been raised for entrance and recruits today are remarkably impressive and need to operate more technologically advanced equipment.

Today’s military represents the finest, best-trained, best-educated, highly motivated and professional soldier, sailor, airman and Marine ever.

Despite two wars, multiple deployments and conflicts elsewhere, our service members want to be there and continue to serve valiantly. They serve because of a sense of duty, honor and patriotism. Other family members have served before them and they see it as their turn. Their country called and they answered.

There is a downside to not having a draft. In the 1960s, families watched Vietnam War reports on the TV network news and read about the war in their newspapers.

Parents worried about their children going to war. Most knew someone who was serving or had served in Vietnam. The general population was engaged.

The draft brought people from all parts of society into the military. Today less than 1 percent of the population serves and the military has become more of a culture with commonality among those serving.

I would not trade our volunteer system, but how many people going about their daily lives have given a thought on any one of the almost 5,900 days or 16 years that members of our military have been fighting in Afghanistan? Or to those fighting in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe?

How many know someone serving in our military today?

The point is the war is distant to most of us because it does not include a close family member. It opens the question of whether we would still be at war today if there was a draft.

My civilian friends talk about the economy, sports, business and politics. My military friends talk about deployment, the last one, the next one, the family separation.

My military friends talk about the 4,526 lost in Iraq and 2,403 lost in Afghanistan because they lost friends and family. Multiply that 10 times for the wounded. The Army bore the brunt of casualties, but it should not be overlooked that more than 11 percent were members of the National Guard and Reserve. 

A most difficult and unprepared experience for me was visiting wounded and their parents in Bethesda Naval Hospital. Their resilient spirit of wanting to rejoin their units was unbelievably inspirational. What motivates them? They serve because of a sense of duty, of honor, of courage and because of their loyalty to each other.  

What is most precious to us is our children. If we engage militarily we must do so judiciously, with purpose and a “will to win.” We can never let their sacrifice be meaningless.

Pause with me for a moment on this Veterans Day and reflect on those in uniform past and present and those forward-deployed in harm’s way.  

Rear Admiral Charles A. Williams graduated from Southeast Missouri State University in 1972, and received his MBA from St. Louis University in 1981 where he later taught in the Business School as an adjunct professor. Earning his commission through Aviation Officer Candidate School his initial assignment was Anti-Submarine Squadron 28 (VS-28) deployed aboard USS America. He later attended Army, Navy and Air Force Defense Courses and Executive Programs at the University of Virginia and Naval Post Graduate School. Williams continued his naval career with diverse assignments in CONUS and overseas units including Joint Service commands and the Secretary of the Navy's Office of Program Appraisal at the Pentagon.