Veterans Day was created after World War I to mark the armistice that took effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Unlike Memorial Day, a Civil War-era holiday meant to honor the dead, Veterans Day was intended to commemorate the living as well. Many communities will do just that this weekend with celebratory parades featuring men and women in uniform.
Veterans Day is also an opportunity for elected officials to tout government programs, and Governor Maura Healey has done her part this year by introducing a package of bills to expand the Commonwealth’s safety net for its 380,000 veterans. The package offers valuable improvements to state programs, and the Legislature should favorably consider its provisions.
Key among those measures is one that would increase an annuity the Commonwealth pays to disabled veterans to $2,500 from $2,000 and another that would reimburse veterans for outpatient mental health treatment. A third would create a $2,500 tax credit for small businesses that hire chronically unemployed, low-income, or disabled veterans, and a fourth would make certain veterans who had received less-than-honorable discharges eligible for state benefits, including the annuity and access to the state’s homes for veterans.
The package is notable as one of the first major acts of the state’s new Executive Office of Veterans’ Services, a cabinet-level office created after the deaths of 110 veterans at state-run veterans’ homes in Chelsea and Holyoke during the pandemic. After construction delays, a new long-term care facility has been opened in Chelsea; a new home in Holyoke is now under construction.
“We’re simultaneously a startup and a turnaround operation,” Secretary for Veterans Services Dr. Jon Santiago told the editorial board. “When 110 people die, it’s not an accident. It showed systemic flaws and issues.”
But parades and programs should be only part of what Veterans Day is all about. American society also has a large, possibly more important role to play in honoring the nation’s 18 million veterans, one that should start with a deeper consideration of why it is worth thanking a veteran for their service.
Start by remembering that since conscription ended in 1973, members of the US armed forces have all been volunteers. That means they signed up of their own volition for the rigors of basic training, the perpetual restrictions of military life, the separation from loved ones during deployments, and the risk of injury or death in combat. Yes, for some, the major motivation may have been benefits like college tuition or technical training. But many are unquestionably driven by a desire to be a part of something larger than themselves.
The bad aftertaste of America’s long and mostly fruitless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is now testing that proposition, as evidenced by the Pentagon’s inability to meet recruiting goals. While military officials publicly attribute the shortfall to things like the low unemployment rate, it seems more than likely that widespread dismay with the outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has also been an important factor.
A much-cited poll conducted by the organization More in Common in 2021 found that two-thirds of American veterans felt “humiliated” by the chaotic withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, while three-quarters or more felt “betrayed,” “angry,” or “disappointed” by it. Nearly 6 in 10 veterans said they agreed with the statement “Sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own country;” among veterans of the Afghanistan war, the rate was even higher: three out of four. By comparison, just 4 in 10 in the general population agreed.
Repairing that sense of betrayal and alienation will require far more than even the most sincere expressions of gratitude. It will involve a better understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and a problem psychologists call “moral injury,” defined as a traumatic response to a severe moral conflict that can overlap with PTSD. And it should include finding new and better ways to channel that instinct to serve that so many veterans have already demonstrated.
To be sure, there are plenty of veterans who now work in public-facing jobs on police and fire departments. And a growing number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have run for office, including representatives Jared Golden of Maine, and Jake Auchincloss and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. Secretary Santiago himself is an Army Reserve major who, as an emergency doctor, recently returned from a deployment to Syria — one of many nearly invisible missions engaging American forces today.
But Massachusetts and the rest of the nation are also facing chronic shortages of teachers, nurses, and mass transit workers. There are programs in existence intended to recruit veterans into these professions, but government officials at all levels should consider whether they could be more effective. It seems indicative of the problem that a Defense Department program called Troops to Teachers is operating with minimal resources, according to its own website.
With wars raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, and conflict an ever-present threat in the Taiwan Straits, Americans across the political spectrum should take a breather from our tribal politics to appreciate the peace and security we all enjoy but too often take for granted.
Let’s also use this day to honor the men and women who contribute to that peace and security. Their service to the nation should continue after they leave the military, for their good and ours.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.