Published November 11, 2009
For 90 years, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month has been a remembrance of those who served America in time of war.
But the Nov. 11 Veterans Day commemoration began as a day to celebrate peace — the silencing of the guns of World War I, "The Great War," which claimed the lives of more than 15 million soldiers and civilians.
On that day in 1918, at the 11th hour, Germany signed an armistice with the Allied Powers — including the U.S., France, Britain, Japan and Italy — ending major hostilities in a war that nearly wiped out a generation of men.
A full peace was concluded the next year in France at the Palace of Versailles, and the first Armistice Day was proclaimed and celebrated by President Woodrow Wilson on the anniversary of the ceasefire: Nov. 11, 1919.
It was fully established by Congress as a legal holiday in 1938.
But Armistice Day honored veterans of only World War I, essentially ignoring millions of soldiers who served in peacetime or fought in World War II, Korea and other engagements.
So in 1954 Congress extended the holiday to honor all vets, giving it the name Veterans Day, which it has kept for 55 years.
Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are some 23.2 million veterans in the United States. That includes 2.6 million who served during World War II, 2.8 million who served in the Korean War, 7.8 million in the Vietnam War, 5.2 million in the Gulf War and about 1.7 million who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nearly 120,000 are still stationed in Iraq, and about 68,000 will be deployed in Afghanistan by the end of the year, according to the Census.
Just one American veteran who served in World War I is still alive: 108-year-old Frank Buckles, who drove ambulances in England and France after enlisting at the age of 16. Buckles also fought in World War II and was taken prisoner by the Japanese.