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As I walked down Nassau Street eight days ago, I noticed something new. 

Stark black flags with the words “POW MIA” above an image of a seemingly powerless man with his head bowed in front of a guard tower watching over him in the background, and the phrase “You are not forgotten” inscribed underneath the scene.

I had never seen these flags before in my life, and suddenly they were flapping up and down from the lampposts on Princeton’s main road and cultural hotspot.

What I later realized was that, as I walked down Nassau Street eight days ago, it was Veterans Day.

How could I forget the day given its heavy commercialization? Shops and restaurants around the country offered special deals for veterans on Sunday and Monday, as a USA Today article points out. American culture is known for its almost deification of the military, and such practices are not shocking, inherently wrong, or surprising.

However, this supposed appreciation and celebration of U.S. servicemen and women has evolved to become insincere and capitalistic, instead of patriotic. Despite our nation’s alleged glorification of the military, we emphasize the superficial aspects, and in doing so, do not place genuine importance on the serious issues related to the military, such as mental healthcare for veterans.

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day in 1919, a year after the conclusion of World War I. Armistice Day was first honored by British King George V, and was quickly recognized in the United States by then President Woodrow Wilson ’1879 in an effort to honor the armistice of the war and the “heroism of those who died in the country’s service.” The United States holiday was changed to Veterans Day in 1954 at the urging of U.S. veterans organisations. 

Throughout our history, the U.S. military has been an integral part of our identity as Americans. It is a source of obvious power, but also a point of patriotism, an entity of honor, and an intrinsic institution.

By no means am I against the appreciation of the United States Armed Forces. I respect and admire the sacrifice of the roughly 1.29 million active duty persons who presently serve their nation, and the 20.4 million men and women who have served in the past.

But over time, as a society, our customs regarding and reactions to events such as Veterans Day speak to our superficial cultural praise for the military.

How genuine is our support if the University does not create educational and reflective programming on Veterans’ Day? How genuine is our support as a nation if our president, who has been an ardent supporter of the nation’s armed forces, cancels a visit to the U.S. cemetery in France for soldiers who fell in the Battle of Belleau Wood during World War I because of poor weather?

Veterans Day should be a day of reflection, appreciation, and learning instead of a national marketing campaign. We must honestly present and discuss the consequences of being in the military in the same breath in which we commend it.

According to the VA National Suicide Data Report, from 2008–16, there have been more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year. And the numbers aren’t slowing down either: from 2005–2016, veteran adult suicide rates increased 25.9 percent, with a significant rate increase in veterans ages 18–34.

And while the unemployment rate for veterans has decreased from 4.3 percent to 3.7 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the transition from military to civilian life is a difficult one that we must continue to assist.

I am pleased to see issues such as veteran mental health and veteran unemployment take more precedence on the political stage. But culturally, we have some work to do.

We must attempt to end the blatant commercialization of all things military. We must emphasize the serious effects of one’s public service just as we emphasize its value. Given that the military is such a fundamental aspect of the American identity, and since this will not change in the foreseeable future, it is only right to approach the subject more holistically.

Even though the holiday has passed for this year, take the time to read about a veteran’s story or talk to one. Appreciate their service, but also appreciate the adversity they might continue to face.

That’s what Veterans Day should be more about, instead of getting free red, white, and blue pancakes at IHOP.

Arman Badrei is a first-year student from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at abadrei@princeton.edu.

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