A few days after graduating high school in the 1940s, Welton Quander Sr. was drafted into the Army — leaving his native Alexandria for distant shores and foreign wars. In the next few months Quander found himself in the midst of an Allied invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge during the final decisive days of World War II. He would later leave the Army and become a deacon of the Alfred Street Baptist Church, joining his fellow members of the Greatest Generation as they transitioned from the battlefield to the workplace. And like countless scores of other former servicemen, Quander found himself with a new title that would take increasing significance to him over the years: veteran.
"People have a tendency to just pass over things that happened for our freedom as if they never existed," Quander said during a Veterans Day service earlier this week. "But it’s important to take a moment to stop and remember all the veterans who have contributed to make this country what it is today."
Quander was one of 50 or so participants in a Veterans Day Program at the Alexandria Black History Museum on Monday. The annual observance commemorates a holiday that was once known as Armistice Day because it was held on the anniversary of the armistice ending hostilities along the Western Front of the "War to End All Wars" on Nov. 11, 1918 — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation changing the name of the legal holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day as a way to honor all veterans of all wars. Since the administration of President George W. Bush has launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the holiday has taken new significance as veterans return from the Middle East and struggle with the transition back to civilian life.
"The Bush administration always says ‘support our troops,’ but there’s more to it than that," said Joe Wynn, regional director for the National Association of Black Veterans. "We can’t forget that today’s troops are tomorrow’s veterans, and they need our support too."
BETWEEN A HAUNTING rendition of Taps and a stirring performance of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, participants in Monday’s ceremony at the Black History Museum were treated to patriotic speeches and grim wartime statistics. Those in attendance agreed to disagree about the war in Iraq and agreed to agree about the value of the sacrifices that veterans have made to America. In a keynote speech, National Association of American Veterans President Constance Burns said that a new generation of veterans will live with the consequences of their service for the rest of their lives.
"Despite our advances in technology and treatment, veterans continue to live with the threat of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injuries," said Burns. "These conditions are frequent among our veterans who return from Afghanistan and Iraq."
This is one of the reasons that Burns helped found the National Association of American Veterans, a nonprofit organization that provides health-care information, emergency assistance and advocacy for all service members. The group, founded in 2005, has a special emphasis on the severely wounded and single-parent service members, veterans and their families. Burns said that one of every three service members returning from war is injured and one in five are disabled with long-term care needs.
"You can’t help but be saddened by the reality of war, but you have to also be heartened by the sacrifice veterans have made for us," said H. Howard Woodson, president of the Alexandria Branch of the National Association of Colored Persons. "And it’s clear that we need to do more to honor their legacy."