Veterans Day: the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. We celebrate Veterans Day on the anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War. In our country, we have set aside this day to honor all those who served in the armed forces of our nation. It is on this day that we recognize the sacrifice of our veterans—those men and women who gave of themselves freely and unconditionally the service of their country.
We honor our veterans on this day with flags and with speeches and with firm handshakes, thanking them for their service. We honor their courage. We honor their perseverance. We honor their sacrifice. But I fear that, all too often, we then simply stash them away amidst the hustle and bustle of the coming holiday season, and give them little or no thought again until summer returns on Memorial Day weekend. In doing so, we do both our veterans and ourselves a great disservice because we fail to understand just who veterans are.
Simply put, veterans are soldiers. And so to understand veterans, we must first understand the American soldier. Soldiers are men and women who at some point in their lives, most commonly in their youth, raised their right hand and swore before God that they would support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies; that they would bear true faith and allegiance to that Constitution; and that they would obey the lawful orders of the President and the officers appointed over them.
In a day and an age where truth seems to be relative and where man’s word has become negotiable, one group of American citizens—the soldier—still lives by certain core values: loyalty, duty, respect, selflessness, honor, integrity, and personal courage. These values make up the character of the American soldier.
A professor once asked a student to point to the United States on a map. The bright young student placed his finger on the map and smiled. “No,” said his professor. “That is Missouri.” Frustrated, the student tried again, this time striking the map a little harder as if the use of force could change the boundaries. “No. That is Kansas.” Now embarrassed, the student pointed to the bold letters scrawled across the face of the map reading “United States of America.” “Very good,” said the professor. “You may take your seat.”
You see, what the professor knew, and the student learned, is that the United States is not a place. You cannot find it on a map. You can find Missouri and Kansas. You can find Virginia and California. You can find Wisconsin and Texas. But you cannot find the United States. The United States is not made up of acreage or square miles. There is no land called the United States. The “United States” is an idea. It is an ideal. It exists only on paper and in the hearts of its people. That is why soldiers swear to defend the “Constitution of the United States,” not the country, and not an individual. Without the Constitution, the country does not exist. It is the Constitution that creates our nation. It is the Constitution that creates our government. Soldiers, in swearing to support and defend the constitution, are swearing to defend an ideal: the ideal of constitutional Republic; the ideal of liberty.
The soldier also swears to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution. The soldier swears not only to defend the Constitution but pledges his loyalty, his devotion, and his faithfulness, as well. From the Revolution to Afghanistan and in every conflict in between, the loyalty, selflessness, and courage of the American soldier has been unquestioned and unequaled.
On the battlefield, the extraordinary ability of the American soldier to improvise is legendary. And the drive to persevere and to accomplish the mission is a direct product of these soldiers growing up in a free and democratic society. As Adolf Hitler learned the hard way, the “spoiled sons” of democracy were not so soft after all.
The soldier’s loyalty extends out from the Constitution to his branch of service, to his individual unit, and to his fellow soldiers. Those who have served have no friends as dear as the people with whom they served. And their loyalty to one another is unrivaled.
Finally, the soldier also swears to obey the lawful orders of the President and the officers appointed over him. Soldiers, more than any other group, perhaps, respect the Office of the Presidency regardless of who the temporary occupant of the White House might be. But their oath is clear—it extends to the lawful orders of the President, not devotion to the whims of any individual.
I want to shift focus for just a moment, and look at that other group mentioned in the oath—the officer. A Marine Corps officer once said, “The more authority one has in the military, the more of a servant he truly becomes.” An Army officer put it this way, “Take care of your Soldiers. They are the most valuable and lethal resource we have in the Army. Don’t caudle them but motivate and inspire them to be leaders. Treat them with respect and correct them when needed but most of all care for them always!”
It is within this framework of servant-leadership that our soldiers function. It is within this framework that our soldiers have confidence in their leaders and so are able to carry out their lawful orders and accomplish their missions bravely, with a sense of duty and honor.
Now you know soldiers. And so now you know veterans. Veterans never forget their oath. Veterans never forget the values they learned during their active service. The service of a veteran never really ends, it just changes form.
It is right and proper that we hold ceremonies such as this to honor our veterans. It is good to thank a veteran, to shake his hand, and to recognize his sacrifice. It is important, too, that we remember those who did not come home: those whose bodies rest both here and abroad, having sacrificed their all for their countrymen.
But to truly honor the veterans of this nation, we must honor what they defended. We must honor the Constitution. It is the Constitution that creates our nation and our government. It is the Constitution that lays out the parameters within which that government must function. And it is the Constitution that by right restrains that government. Always remember that the Constitution grants no rights to the people. Instead, through the Constitution, the People establish our government and, at the same time, the People set limits upon it. The preamble to the Constitution reads:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
These are simple words. But they are words powerful enough to create a nation. If we wish to honor our veterans, then we must honor what they swore to defend: the Constitution of the United States of America.
May God bless all our veterans. And may God bless the United States of America.