On November 11 of each year, Americans honor the veterans who served to keep our country free.
The day was originally known as Armistice Day to mark the armistice ending World War I at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill in 1954 officially proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day to remember those who served not only in World War I but in all the wars our country has fought.
When our country is threatened and our freedom is in peril, we have been fortunate to have brave men and women willing to step forward and answer the call.
From the beginning of the Republic, we have enjoyed the protection of the citizen soldier who leaves the comforts of home behind to defend our rights and then puts down his arms when the job is done. George Washington served as a model in this regard, but millions of Americans less well-remembered have done the same. It is our duty on Veterans Day to better remember them, especially the ones in our own communities, so that their sacrifices are recognized and their service honored.
This year, Americans lost the last of a certain breed. West Virginia’s Hershel “Woody” Williams passed away on June 29, 2022, at the age of 98. He was the final surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II.
The story of Woody Williams is representative of the veterans of his generation who are passing from the scene but also speaks to the experience of veterans across our history. He was born on a dairy farm in West Virginia in 1923. After the United States entered World War II, his older brothers served in the Army, but he chose the Marine Corps due to its blue uniforms. He was rejected at first due to his 5-foot-6 height but successfully enlisted when he tried again in 1943.
He received the Medal of Honor for his actions on February 23, 1945, during the Battle of Iwo Jima. As a corporal with the 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division, he volunteered to clear a path through the hardened defenses erected by Japanese forces on the island. For four hours, he repeatedly ran under heavy fire between the American lines and the Japanese positions, grabbing the demolition charges or flamethrowers he needed from his comrades and returning to destroy the Japanese defenses.
President Harry S. Truman awarded Mr. Williams the Medal of Honor at the White House on October 5, 1945. He returned home to West Virginia and married his fiancée, Ruby. In his later years, he remained an undaunted voice for his fellow veterans and for Gold Star families.
Woody Williams may have been the last of World War II’s Medal of Honor winners among us, but there are plenty of veterans still to thank. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 19 million veterans live among us in the United States and more than 700,000 in Virginia. Some of them still struggle with injuries received in the line of duty.
We can honor veterans not just on the day set aside for them but every day. Consider supporting causes or organizations that work with veterans. Listen to their stories, and even help record them for posterity through the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. Check in on family members and friends who served.
Further, if you are a veteran who needs assistance accessing your VA benefits or securing medals that were lost or awarded but never delivered, please contact my office and we can assist you.
On the National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C., is inscribed a quote by the author Willa Cather: “They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.”
If they are unconquerable, our country is unconquerable, and for that, we owe America’s veterans our deepest gratitude.