anne mikolay 2012 120Today is Veterans Day. Surprisingly, there are many Americans who confuse this day with Memorial Day. If you are one of them, let me set you straight. Memorial Day honors those who died as a result of wounds suffered during military combat; Veterans Day honors all United States veterans, living and deceased, who honorably served during times of war or peace.

Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, originally commemorated the end of World War I (November 11, 1918) and became an official holiday in 1938. In 1954, the Act of 1938 was amended in acknowledgement of veterans from WWII and the Korean War. Thus, legislation passed in 1954 designated November 11th as a day to honor all American veterans of all wars.

Those are the facts, but history is not defined by facts alone. People created this great nation. People made our history. We cannot understand our past nor appreciate our heroic veterans without adopting a very personal viewpoint. To comprehend at least a little of the veterans' experience, we must look into their faces. Listen to their stories. Really listen.

My father is a veteran of World War II who fought gallantly in the Pacific. Though I learned about World War II in school lectures and text books, nothing made as lasting an impression on me as my father's personal tales of war. When he speaks about his combat experience, he does so with great emotion and an angst I am blessedly unfamiliar with, thanks to his service and that of his comrades. My father is justifiably proud of his service. When he was a very young man, his nation called and he bravely responded. His war-time experience, deeply ingrained within him, shaped the man he is today.

There are several veterans in my family. My great-great grandfather, Peter, served in the Union Army. Despite being 47 years of age and plagued by rheumatism, Peter enlisted, leaving behind his wife and five children. I wonder. How does a man muster such strength? My late father-in-law, Joe, a skinny kid from Pennsylvania coal mining country, served in the Navy during WWII. When I think of him manning the giant guns on deck of the U.S.S. Wisconsin battleship, I can't imagine what might have been racing through his mind. When I think of my father going from the ball-fields of his Bronx neighborhood to the Philippine jungles, I marvel at his bravery. My Dad is a hero. So was Peter. So was Joe. All veterans are.

If you want to learn about American and world history, by all means, read all you can. Pay attention in school. But if you want to touch the core of the American experience, talk to a vet. Listen. Learn. They are what make this nation great.

Peter, Joe, where-ever you are now, thank you for your service. Thank you to all veterans. Most especially, thank you to my father. My heart aches when I think of what my dad went through during his war years; he truly is my hero.