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This year Veterans Day marks the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice or the end of combat in World War I. On Nov. 11, we pause to reflect on what it means for our 20 million Veterans in the United States today. 

From World War II forward, we have veterans alive today who fought alongside those who died. They gave the ultimate sacrifice to keep us free, to ensure opportunity in the American way of life, and to offer hope to those who did not have any. 

We are strong, opinionated, determined, stubborn, many times obstinate, and fiercely committed to this concept of freedom that we enjoy today.

Armistice Day was started in 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson in an effort to show appreciation to the “The Dough Boys” or the veterans of World War I. Many had experienced the pain of mustard gas and the first known mass expulsion of chemical warfare. 

In 1931, many veterans marched on Washington, D.C. to demand that Congress pay them during the second full year of the Great Depression. They were ultimately driven out by President Herbert Hoover when, through the Department of War, he ordered the U.S. Army to send a brigade under the command of Brigadier General Douglas McArthur to use active duty soldiers to attack veterans of World War I.

Two veterans were killed in the mayhem that followed. The hurt felt by the nation was palpable.

So was the pain and agony of the Vietnam War. Our veterans were gallant and determined in so many tactical victories against a flawed National Security Strategy that not only failed the nation and the free world but specifically failed the men and women who wore the cloth of our nation.

As a veteran of the Global War on Terrorism and two combat deployments, I respect the experience of our Vietnam Veterans more than any generation in the 242-year history of our Republic. 

Why? 

They fought without the support of the American people in a war that caused most of us pause, at best, and outright animosity at worst. We have had to sort out our experiences, our emotions, our understanding, our politics and our idea of what is American over the past 50 years. 

I recently pastored a small church where one of the church leaders, an Airborne Ranger in Vietnam, was one of those I leaned on for wisdom in leading the parish. I thank him and all of those who served during what was an incredibly brutal phase of American history. 

Veterans today are eager to serve. We're eager to share with the Republic what we learned together and who we are. I have some of my dearest friends because I served.

I would never have met them or been affiliated without anyone from their background had I not simply raised my right hand and volunteered. It does not matter if it was for one tour or for one career or something in between. 

All of us strive for two words that drive us toward our re-entry into society after we wear the cloth of our nation:  “honorable discharge.”

Those words bind over my relationship to you, the American, the voter, the taxpayer,  the one who pays my bills for service to our country and to me and what you expect from me. 

It says that the character of my relationship with you is solid. That I am worthy. 

So many veterans ask themselves if they did enough or gave everything they were supposed to. 

For me, I know that I always wanted to do more. So many of us do. 

We work to grow where we are planted. It's a dynamic we understand and one we lived out in our service to our country.  But, as I left theatre for the last time many years ago and turned to kiss my wife and leave after my retirement ceremony this past spring, I was left feeling that I could have done more.I should have done more, I wanted to do more, but, I cannot. I have to go home. 

It is the surrender to the Almighty and the faith of not knowing what comes next.

Veterans Day for all veterans is at some level difficult. For some of us this pain is a lot worse on Veterans Day than Memorial Day. For me, it is – to say the least – a brutal holiday. 

As a retired Navy Chaplain,  it is an especially tough day for me because I think about those I buried. Those that are not here. I have to ask,  “why not me?”

I remember the young Navy lieutenant who volunteered to serve as a staff officer on September 12, 2001. Eight years later she was killed in a “blue on green” attack when an Afghan National Army soldier shot and killed her because she and two other officers were running physical training in shorts on the Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan.

She left behind her husband, a Navy physician, and her 3-year-old son. 

I remember the family of the young United States Marine Corps Sergeant who was shot and killed by an Afghan National Police recruit in training while he ate his dinner in the chow hall. I vividly remember the intensity of the bright autumn sun when I led the funeral procession at Arlington National Cemetery a decade ago. 

I remember what it felt like on 9/11 on the quarterdeck of the USS CAPE ST GEORGE (CG 71). I remember what it felt like for our crew to go into combat in March 2003. I remember what it felt like to receive a phone call at 5:15 p.m. on a rainy December 2009 Thursday night and hearing,  “I need someone to fill this billet. I need an answer no later than noon tomorrow. You will be gone a year.  Can I count on you?”

I think about the gallantry of the provisional reconstruction teams that I served in Afghanistan and Iraq and the difference that they made in showing so many a better way of life and attempting to suffocate future opportunities for terrorism. 

I think about the reality that we as Americans have such a high value of life and the sacrifice of it in the defense of freedom. I think about the pain that so many shared with me. 

For those of us who lived,  survivor's guilt is hard knowing that we lived and our brothers and sisters died. We're left wondering why. 

For me, I learned to rely on the providence of God to carry me through these experiences. 

It is the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day, which became Veterans Day after a 1954 act of Congress to recognized all Veterans and not simply those of World War I.

As we honor our Veterans this Veterans Day, I encourage all of us to remember how great we are as a nation because of the diversity, the determination and the hope that our 20 million veterans offer us today.  

I would like to say that we as a community here in Western North Carolina are especially blessed. I want those who read this to know how much you all helped my family and me. I want you to know that without the prayers, the support, the community and your hope that we as a family never would have made it. 

Some of our veterans may not be as fortunate.

If you have the opportunity to access a veteran’s life that offers him or her a way to move forward in helping our community, I hope you will. Belonging is so critical to us, it's what we seek. 

May all of us rededicate ourselves to understanding that service as a patriot is a privilege. 

If you want to honor a veteran, then work to keep the Republic intact. We need it, and America is more than worth saving. 

Our brothers and sisters did not die in vain; they died so we can have the privilege to live.

Erskine Alvis retired as a Lieutenant Commander in the Chaplain Corps of the United States Navy in May 2018 after 22 years of service. He served from Mount Fuji, Japan to Khost, Afghanistan with Marines and Sailors overseas in combat operations and here at home. He is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship who hold his ecclesiastical endorsement.  He lives in Black Mountain.

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