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Wednesday, 14 November 2007 00:00

Gauging a country’s greatness

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By David Curtis

Making the rounds in teacher’s email inboxes is a story about an educator from Arkansas who taught her students an invaluable lesson on the right to an education.

At the beginning of the school year a social studies teacher from a Little Rock high school removed all the desks from her classroom. When the students came to first period class they walked in and found the room empty. They ask the teacher where their desks were, and she told them that they could not have a desk until they tell her how they could “earn” them.

The students offered answers that maybe it was their grades that earned them, or maybe it was their good behavior No, she told them it wasn’t their grades or behavior. Class after class came and went and still there were no desks in the room. Finally at the end of the day the teacher gathered her class and told them that throughout the day no one really understood how you could earn a desk that sits in a classroom.

With that said, the teacher walked over to the door of her classroom and opened it. In stepped 27 U.S. veterans, in full uniform, each carrying a desk. After each veteran place a desk neatly in a row, they stood silently along a back wall. Only then did the teacher speak.

She told the students that you don’t have to earn those desks; these soldiers earned them for you. Now it is up to you to sit in them to learn, to be good students and to be good citizens because these veterans and many more just like them are the ones who paid the price for you to have a desk to sit in each day.

We did not have school on Monday, it was Veterans Day, and so the students and the school’s faculty were home for a three-day weekend. I wonder, how many of this generation really know why this day is a day of remembrance and honor.

Veterans Day was once known as Armistice Day, created by President Woodrow Wilson in November 1919 to honor and remember those who died in, what was called at that time, “the war to end all wars,” World War I. The armistice to end hostilities was signed in 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which is why November 11th was chosen as the day of remembrance.

Because WWI was not the war to end all wars, in 1954 President Eisenhower signed into law an amendment that changed the name of the federal holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day, making Nov. 11th a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

Does this country still honor its veterans? In President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address nearing the end of the bloodiest war on American soil, he made a promise to the soldiers of this conflict. His words were, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” Lincoln’s words were so powerful and reminding that they were engraved on a metal plaque and mounted at the entrance to the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) in Washington, D.C. These words are the very foundation of which the greatness of a nation can be measured.

When we read in the paper and see on the nightly news that wounded and recovering American soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were lost in the bureaucratic nightmare of government paperwork and denied treatment and care, we are not a great nation.

When sick and wounded soldiers returning from Iraq are warehoused in dilapidated barracks, waiting weeks or even months to see doctors for treatment, we are not a great nation.

When many of the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are not getting proper treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, or the government ignores the growing rate of combat-induced psychological problems, we are not a great nation. (A 2004 study in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that about one in six soldiers returning from the war in Iraq showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional difficulties.)

When veterans account for one out of every four homeless people in the United States, yet make up only 11 percent of the adult population, then we are not a great nation. The growing rate of homeless and troubled veterans coming out of this war, reported by the Associated Press, are more likely to be women and are more likely to have mental illness — mostly related to post-traumatic stress.

Former president Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

The loss of this freedom starts with forgetting how it was earned. As the richest and most powerful nation in the world, every day should be a day to honor and uphold Lincoln’s words.

Every day should be Veterans Day. God Bless and come home soon.

(David Curtis teaches at Bethel Middle School in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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