On Veterans Day, a Story About Our Nation's Most Important Soldier

The talk started with a simple question. "Why do we celebrate our military and our veterans," Vince Benedetto asked a gathering of high school students in northeast Pennsylvania on Veterans Day in 2019. "Why do we even care that I'm a veteran?" Some hands quickly shot up.

"They served their country," one student answered.

"Our military protects our freedom, and freedom isn't free," another added.

Benedetto was pleased with the answers because he's a veteran. He graduated from the Air Force Academy and served in the Office of Special Investigations, the Air Force's version of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

He continued with the questions. "Who here has seen an American soldier in uniform?" he asked. Every hand in the room went up. "And what did you feel when you saw them?"

"Pride," one student shouted.

"Patriotism," another yelled.

"Safety," another proclaimed.

"Who here has ever seen an American soldier and felt afraid?" Benedetto asked next. There was a long pause.

"No one? Our soldiers are powerful people, they're trained to fight—and they have guns. No one here has ever once felt fear in your hearts upon seeing a uniformed soldier?" Benedetto asked. Still, not a single person raised a hand. "This is why we celebrate Veterans Day," Benedetto said. "This is why we celebrate our military in America."

In many parts of the world, Benedetto explained, people do not celebrate their military. Indeed, they fear it. "In much of the world, the military is viewed as a tool of the government to oppress them, not serve them."

How did such a remarkable thing come to be? Benedetto asked the students to enlist their imaginative capacities and conjure a picture of life in America in 1776. And July 3, specifically.

"At this time, everyone on the planet lived under some form of a dictatorship. Whether it was a king, queen, czar or some other ruler, everyone had this common situation to one degree or another," Benedetto said. "On July Fourth, 1776, it all changed. Suddenly, Americans declared their independence. Americans declared they were free."

That historical fact alone didn't fully answer the question of why we don't fear our military. "To understand this," he explained, "we have to turn to our first American soldier, George Washington. He was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army, which really didn't exist, and had the enormous task of building and leading a fighting force against the British Empire, the most powerful in the world."

George Washington
A statue of George Washington in front of South Carolina's statehouse. Photo by Epics/Getty Images

Benedetto presented this great underdog story with an image of Washington's command flag on a screen behind him. "As an early testament to his brilliant leadership instincts, the flag has 13 equally sized, six-pointed white stars against a blue field," Benedetto noted. "Washington well understood the parochial and rivalrous mindset of those who he would now need to unite under seemingly impossible odds."

In the 18th century, most Americans had never traveled outside their town or city, let alone their state, and the states, still under the rule of the Articles of Confederation, viewed themselves as separate nations.

That was the genius of Washington's battle flag: It didn't represent him but them. "As a soldier in this new army, whether you were from small Rhode Island or any number of the larger states, you knew that one of those stars on his flag represented you and your home," Benedetto said

Benedetto then asked the students to imagine the days immediately after the war for independence was won. Washington was now one of the most famous people in the world. "Throughout Britain and the halls of Europe, it was assumed that Washington would become a king in America," Benedetto said. "This was just the way it's always been—the general of the victorious army became the new ruler." The American people, it was assumed, would simply be replacing one King George with another.

King George III, having learned that Washington was to resign his commission, believed the general would be the greatest man in the world and "the greatest character of the age" if he did so.

But Benedetto wasn't finished with his Veterans Day story. There was one last chapter: the final days of the war in Newburgh, New York, in 1783. "Major conflict had ended, and as America awaited a formal peace treaty with Britain, the new nation was struggling financially, and Congress was unable to meet its payment obligations to the Continental Army," Benedetto explained, setting the scene to come. "This was leading to severe unrest amongst the officers and soldiers."

That unrest led to a plan among some high-ranking officers to use the military to take over or threaten the government until their demands were met.

"Can you imagine? Benedetto asked. "The war was not even formerly over, and the new nation was already moving dangerously close to a military coup?"

One man stood in the breach. "Learning of the plans within his army, Washington called for a meeting of his officers at their headquarters in Newburgh, New York," Benedetto said. Washington indicated he wouldn't be in attendance, deferring to the commander below him. General Horatio Gates started the meeting, and he fed into the growing cries for hostile action against Congress.

"Suddenly, Washington walked into the room and took command," Benedetto said. Many of the officers hadn't seen Washington in a long time. They noticed he'd aged. Washington then did something that would change the course of American history.

"He explained to the soldiers that it was at this moment, at the end of the war, where their example was most important," Benedetto said. "Understanding that history was filled with revolutions that ended this way, he let them know the world was watching and waiting for ours to do the same."

Washington appealed to the soldiers' sense of honor and patriotism. This moment, he told them, was their biggest test.

Washington expressed his affection for them and assured the soldiers he was working to resolve their grievances. He then pulled out of his vest a letter from Congress and began to read it to them, but he was struggling. Sensing that his officers noticed this moment of vulnerability, Washington paused, reached into his pocket and pulled out his eyeglasses.

"His officers had never before seen him wear glasses," Benedetto continued. "The general looked solemnly at his military family and said, 'Gentleman, you must pardon me, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country.' Tears gathered in the eyes of his officers. They loved their general. By all accounts, at this very moment, the coup was over."

Later that same year, Washington again displayed his character—and greatness. "On December 23rd, 1783, the most popular and powerful person in the United States resigned his commission before the Continental Congress and returned home," Benedetto said. "The world was stunned. This had not and does not happen."

Benedetto was finished with Washington's story, but he wasn't finished answering that question about why we trust and love our veterans. "Every American who joins our armed forces takes an oath," he explained. "And we do something quite peculiar. We swear an oath not to the president or the government and not even the country. We swear an oath to a certain thing. Do you know what that thing is?"

There was silence, so he gave a clue. "It's a document," he added. Suddenly, a bunch of students yelled the answer. "That's right," Benedetto said. "The Constitution." He told the students about the significance and beauty of swearing to "support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

"Our military is loved because it's a powerful force that represents our rights," Benedetto said in closing. "As Americans, our sense that government serves the people and not the other way around is commonplace. However, throughout history and the world, this is miraculous."

"That's why we celebrate our veterans," Benedetto said. "They defend our traditions and customs that must go on if liberty is to go on."

None of this would have been possible without our nation's first president and military commander. "It's frequently been remarked that the words of Thomas Jefferson would mean little without the sword of George Washington," Benedetto said.

It's true. We can trace our love of our veterans and military—and our country—to one man. To his character. His courage. And his example.