More than a sales event or a day off, Veterans Day provides our nation with an annual opportunity to pause and reflect on the sacrifice of those called into service in our nation’s armed conflicts. It also prompts us to contemplate our higher calling as citizens in support of those who defend us.
As noted in previous blogs, in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, an armistice was signed by the combatants in World War I. This armistice led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended the war. In fact, originally, this holiday was referred to as “Armistice Day.” Over the years, with the unfortunate occurrence of additional wars, the nature of the celebration, even its date, changed. Ultimately, however, the celebration returned to November 11th with its name reflecting its expansive purpose to honor our veterans.
Those who served in combat in World War I faced the horrors of modernized, mechanized warfare. In trenches on obliterated landscapes strewn with barbed wire, belligerents suffered air bombardments, assaults from tanks, and the unspeakable horror of poison gas attacks, all while facing life-threatening diseases. The number of casualties was enormous, and, in addition to the armed combatants, they included the many volunteers who answered the call to serve the soldiers offering up their lives for their country.
One such volunteer was Winona Caroline Martin, a librarian from Rockville Centre, N.Y. According to several sources, Martin, a canteen worker with the YMCA in France, was the first American woman to die in action. She contracted scarlet fever, and she lost her life when the hospital where she was being treated was bombed by the Germans during an air raid on Paris.
Before arriving in France, her life appeared to be as far removed from warfare as one could imagine. In addition to serving her community as a librarian, she was an accomplished author and an award-winning poet. Yet, as American troops engaged in Europe, Martin rose to follow a different call. She took a leave of absence from her position to volunteer with the YMCA and support the soldiers fighting on the front. So committed to this calling was Martin that she told a friend she would set sail to Europe, even if she knew that the ship on which she was traveling would be torpedoed. Upon arriving in Paris, she completed her record card at the YMCA headquarters. In her own handwriting, she declared her service, “For the duration of the war and longer if required.”1
Sadly, Martin’s full vision of service was not to be. Still, it provides a profound example of self-sacrifice to our nation and, in particular, to those who dedicate their lives to its defense. Veterans Day is a time to remember and show appreciation to our veterans for selflessly offering to make the supreme sacrifice for love of country. So too, Winona Caroline Martin’s contribution to the effort that inspired the original Veterans Day should remind us of our unending obligations to our veterans, to be there for them, as they were there for us.