Veterans Day calls for 'thank you' and more

by Janet Smith


JMU students hold the edges of a U.S. Flag during a flag-lowering ceremony at Colleville Cemetery in France in July 2013
JMU students participate in a flag-lowering ceremony at the end of the day at Colleville Cemetery in France. (Photo courtesy of Michael J. Galgano)

As America observes the service of veterans in all wars on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, a James Madison University history professor believes U.S. citizens can do much more to honor the sacrifice of veterans, both ceremonially and practically.

“Military service and sacrifice is more remembered in Europe,” says Dr. Michael J. Galgano, whose research interests include war veterans since 1500. Galgano draws much of his reflection from numerous study trips to Europe, most recently in summer 2013 when he co-led a three-week seminar for 10 JMU students to study Civilization, Culture and Memory: Paris and Normandy in partnership with Normandy Allies Inc.

Galgano and his students visited numerous monuments to World War II veterans during their journey through Paris, Rouen, Chartes, Mont St. Michel and Normandy. Along the way, they met with French veterans, government officials and people who were children on D-Day to better understand why June 6, 1944, and the ensuing weeks after the Normandy Invasion are “very much a part of the living French memory.”

Students joined in ceremonies of the lowering of the U.S. flag at the end of the day at Colleville Cemetery and placing maple leaves on a monument to Canadian soldiers who were executed by German soldiers in Normandy’s Canadian sector. They received smooth rocks, gathered from Omaha Beach and painted by a woman who still lives in the area, where, as a 4-year-old child, she lost her mother during the bombings that were part of D-Day.

“These folks (at Normandy) have lost an enormous amount, and yet for them America gave them liberty and American GIs are welcomed and celebrated everywhere,” Galgano observes.

The fact Europeans observed first-hand the valor and commitment of American soldiers no doubt affects their attitude. But there is also a cultural difference in the way Americans and Europeans view military service and commemorate that service, Galgano says.

“It goes back to the American Revolution, that part of being a citizen is to fight to defend your country and those who do that are not owed anything beyond the thanks of the country for having done this,” he said.

“That tension between what is owed to soldiers and what is not I think existed from the founding of the republic and it is still present. There are many today who see the Army since the ’70s as a professional Army, and the feeling is very much, except for those who were wounded, society does not owe them anything.”

By the mid-19th century, attitudes began to change, Galgano says. Pensions for the indigent and those who sustained severe injuries became more common. Then came the GI Bill in the 1940s – “the basis of modern American veterans benefits.” It recognizes that soldiers have given up productive years in their lives to serve in the military and are due help in education, housing and job training. “That is really the heart of the GI Bill.”

Beyond cultural differences, “I think people, especially in America, don’t know how to respond to veterans’ service,” Galgano says. “What do you say?”

But beyond the “thank you for your service” we often offer when we encounter a veteran of military service, Galgano believes Americans can do better.

“We’re good at memorializing, we’re good at parades, we’re good at building cemeteries and statues, but at the same time we’re not very good at the second part, providing assistance. If we are, the evidence doesn’t support that we do.

“If we’re thanking veterans for their service and yet not honoring that service with providing assistance that people are entitled to, what are we saying about ourselves? I believe in celebration because it makes it a part of the living experience of those who come after. At the same time, we have an obligation, it seems to me, as a people to those who have served.”

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Nov. 11, 2013

By Janet Smith, JMU Public Affairs

Published: Monday, November 11, 2013

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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