By SARA ARTHURS
The date of Veterans Day commemorates the end of World War I in 1918.
A century later, the annual observance is still a time that’s significant for many area veterans who say they’re seeing more community support now than in years past.
World War I didn’t officially end until the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. But fighting ceased at the “11th hour” of Nov. 11, 1918, so that is officially considered the end of the war, said Joy Bennett, curator and archivist at the Hancock Historical Museum.
And in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that Nov. 11 would be celebrated as Armistice Day, “a day of parades. … And it was all supposed to begin at 11 a.m.,” Bennett added.
Bennett said the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Canada all also celebrate Armistice Day on or near Nov. 11.
The name was later changed to Veterans Day. The holiday was for a few years in the 1970s honored in October but in 1975, President Gerald Ford — noting the historical significance of the date — moved it back to Nov. 11.
Bennett said there had earlier been some efforts made to support veterans. There were organizations for Civil War veterans that held their own events, and some veterans back then would wear their medals every day.
“But it wasn’t quite the same,” she said.
Bill Johns is president of the Hancock County Veterans Council and a commissioner on the veterans service office board representing the Disabled American Veterans. When he returned from Vietnam, he and his fellow soldiers were treated “pretty much like dirt” — not so much in Findlay, but in many other communities, he said.
While eating near the Ohio State University, “I had some girl come up and call me a baby killer and spit on me,” he said, adding many soldiers didn’t wear their uniform in public for this reason.
When Operation Desert Storm began, Vietnam veterans vowed to protect the younger soldiers from experiencing what they had, Johns said. And the public in general was developing a different perspective.
Many schools now have Veterans Day programs, and Johns said people regularly come up and say “thank you” to veterans on the street.
And he said veterans’ issues, such as problems with the VA health system, now get more media coverage. And people are “paying more attention” — though he’d like to see more of that attention going to trauma resulting from recent wars.
Johns became more actively involved with veterans’ issues around the early 1990s. He was asked to talk about the Vietnam War at a high school, and “it took me a while to decide to do that.” But he did, and he realized that the history books didn’t really delve into the topic enough.
He noted that those students “seemed seriously interested.” He didn’t talk about combat itself much, but shared the message: “We were just soldiers doing our jobs.”
Nichole Coleman, Hancock County veterans service officer, can’t recall her father, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran, participating in Veterans Day activities when she was growing up. She doesn’t remember a lot of Veterans Day activities at all from when she was a child. But she knew “as a very young girl” that she wanted to go into the service.
Coleman, 46, has had a different experience than her father. She and her husband are both veterans. Though her husband must work some bank holidays, “he does not ever work on Veterans Day, because it is our day.”
The couple go out to restaurants offering free meals, but it’s not about the free food. Sometimes a veteran will come in on their own, and the couple may ask him or her to join them.
“We know the restaurant’s going to be full of brothers and sisters,” she said.
Every October, Coleman’s office begins calling restaurants that will offer meals, and learning about school programs. They assemble the information on their website, and on a sheet for veterans to pick up.
Locally, she said veterans are blessed, as community members are “so supportive” of them.
The Marathon Petroleum Corp. Environmental, Safety and Corporate Affairs Core Group creates and signs patriotic cards, passing them along to Coleman’s office to mail out.
“So many people were just so moved,” she said of the project. She said it meant a lot to get a card “signed by real people,” and not computer-generated.
As for her father, he lives out of state now, so they don’t spend Veterans Day together. But Coleman has seen his Veterans Day Facebook posts, “out getting my pancakes at Denny’s.”
She wonders if activities for veterans were available when her father was younger, but he didn’t participate.
“Not everyone accepted them (Vietnam veterans) as a veteran,” she said.
She said local community members are “being so generous in how they recognize” veterans. Some restaurants know there are a number of places where people can eat for free, so they encourage veterans to stop in and get food to go. That way they can eat three free meals that day, and take home a fourth to eat the next day.
She said one local veteran exited a VA clinic to find flowers on her car.
Coleman herself has military license plates, and once returned from running an errand to find a note of gratitude on her car. She put it on her refrigerator because it meant so much to her.
“I still have that to this day,” she said.
How can community members honor local veterans?
“Eye contact and a genuine ‘Thank you for your service.’ … That means more than people realize,” Coleman said.
Johns had similar advice: “Just remember, when you see a veteran, to say ‘Thank you,'” as it “makes so many veterans so happy.”
He also encouraged community members to show up to the Veterans Day parade, which includes veterans of all ages. Johns said more and more people turn out each year, and he promised a couple of “surprises” in this year’s parade.
He recalled one year seeing a veteran in a wheelchair. As the flag passed by, the man stood to salute it, his daughter making sure he did not fall. Johns said a veteran is “standing immediately” when the flag comes by.
“Please come down to the parade. … Come down and visit with us, and walk with us if you want to,” he said.
Johns noted there are other upcoming activities, including Toys for Tots and visiting veterans at Christmas, and organizers are looking for community members to get involved. They are also considering another “welcome home”-type event in 2019. As it will take time and money to put together, Johns is looking for help.
“Just contact me,” he said. (His cellphone number is 419-721-7275.)
Flag City Honor Flight Executive Director Deb Wickerham said a lot of younger veterans volunteer as guardians to look after the older veterans on the trip to Washington, D.C. They share stories, and “I think it’s very good for both of them,” she said.
She said this may lead to them sharing stories with their families. Veterans Day also makes people “more comfortable talking about their service.”
Wickerham said Veterans Day also “helps teach the children.” Twenty-five years ago, when she was a teacher at Chamberlin Hill, she started an effort to educate kids about military operations. Back then, few schools had Veterans Day programs, but now many more do, she said.
It has a personal connection for her, as both her family and her husband’s have long histories of military service. When Wickerham was 16, her 19-year-old cousin was killed while serving in Vietnam. She said every time she is in Washington, she stops at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as “A veteran is never forgotten as long as somebody says their name.”
Since 1972, she has worn a POW bracelet engraved with the name of Lt. Col. Wayne Wolfkeil, who was shot down on Aug. 9, 1968. She said she has worn it so long that now “it is part of my arm,” and she plans to wear it until his remains are found.
“It’s because of them that we’re free,” Wickerham said. “Freedom is not free.”