A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Rick Rand
FRANKFORT – Early next week, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, our nation will pause to pay tribute to its veterans.
That timing is crucial, because it marks the anniversary of the unofficial end of World War I, when leaders agreed to cease fighting late in the morning of Nov. 11, 1918.
Although the war did not technically conclude until the Treaty of Versailles seven months later, President Wilson understandably chose that symbolic day to honor those who fought in what many called the “Great War.”
For nearly four decades, their sacrifices were the chief focus of Armistice Day. In the wake of World War II and the Korean War, however, it was clear that the holiday’s scope needed to be widened, and 60 years ago this past summer, Congress and President Eisenhower accomplished that goal by renaming it Veterans Day.
Kentucky, not surprisingly, has a long record of doing more than its fair share for our country. We lost more soldiers during the War of 1812, for example, than every other state combined.
In World War I, we can lay claim to the very first American casualty, McLean County native Cpl. James Bethel Gresham, and one of the war’s last survivors: Hopkinsville native Robley Rex, whose military career began after the armistice but before the Treaty of Versailles.
After he died in April 2009, just a few days prior to his 108th birthday, only one World War I-era veteran was still alive in our country.
About 84,000 Kentuckians served in World War I, and more than three-and-a-half times as many answered the call during World War II. Tens of thousands more joined their ranks in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and stand at the ready at Fort Knox, Fort Campbell and dozens of other installations across the Commonwealth.
Since the beginning of the Revolutionary War, 42 million Americans have given their time, their talents and, if necessary, even their life and limb on our behalf. More than half of those soldiers are still with us today, including 339,000 Kentuckians.
The General Assembly has worked hard over the years to ensure these men and women are given the respect and care they deserve. That includes dedicating money to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.; declaring Veterans Day to be a state holiday; and making it possible for older veterans to receive their high school diplomas if they were otherwise unable to finish high school because of their service.
The state’s first nursing home for veterans opened in the early 1990s in Jessamine County and two more were added in the eastern and western sections of the state a decade later. A fourth one is scheduled to open a year from now in Hardin County, while there has been some preliminary discussion about adding a fifth in Bowling Green. There are also several state-run veterans cemeteries complementing the state’s seven national ones.
Economically, we have exempted active-duty military pay from the state’s income tax, and we made it possible for veterans to use their military experience, if applicable, when applying to be a firefighter or paramedic/EMT or to work in the heating-and-air industry.
Early next month, veterans who earned a Purple Heart medal will be able to obtain an updated license plate that will add the phrase “combat wounded” so everyone has a better understanding of what this medal means.
Now through the end of March, meanwhile, the Kentucky State Parks are offering lodging discounts to veterans and those still serving.
Overall, veterans make up less than eight percent of the United States’ population, but it is no overstatement to say our lives would be very different without their countless contributions and sacrifices.
If you are a veteran, I want to thank you for everything you have done, with no thought of reward. It is impossible to put a price on what you did when we needed you most.
Next Tuesday, our country will honor these men and women with hundreds if not thousands of Veterans Day ceremonies. I encourage you to join with me in taking the time to remember and thank those who were there when we needed them most.
It’s vital that we hear their stories and better learn the history they helped to write. President Calvin Coolidge had it right when he said that “the nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”