By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
Veterans Day is one of the most sacred days on our national calendar. This year, it was a special pleasure to spend that day of remembrance and gratitude in Freedom, Maine, a town whose very name celebrates the great gift we have been given by our veterans and those who serve today.
Freedom is more than the name of that lovely Waldo County community; it is its heritage. The first settler in 1794 was Stephen Smith, a patriot who fought for freedom in the Revolutionary War. The town was incorporated during the War of 1812, the first challenge to our young nation’s freedom. In 1863, with the Civil War raging, a young man from Freedom named Daniel Davis left school and joined the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment so that the blessing of freedom would be extended to all Americans. In 1880, he became Maine’s 37th Governor.
On Veterans Day 2017, the people of Freedom paid tribute to their family members, friends, and neighbors who served in our time. The celebration coincided with the 98th birthday of Roy Ward, the town’s oldest citizen, whose courageous Navy service during World War II inspires us today.
While Freedom’s history is unique, the virtues it describes unite our great nation. It is estimated that some 48 million Americans have served in uniform since the founding of our nation. Today, more than 20 million veterans live among us, more than 116,000 right here in Maine. To put that in perspective, Maine has more veterans per capita than all but two of the other states in the country. We are proud of our State’s contributions to protecting our nation.
Those numbers are impressive not only because of their sheer size, but also because they describe the history of a people united by the highest ideals of humanity. Those numbers are not cold statistics. Each one tells a story of courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty.
On Veterans Day, we honor those who paid the ultimate price, whether they lie at rest in foreign lands or in their hometowns. We honor those who lived beyond their years of military service but who have since passed on. We honor those who remain missing and pledge that they never will be forgotten. And we honor those veterans who are with us today. We owe them all a great debt.
We also honor the parents, the wives and husbands, the children and other loved ones of our veterans and our troops. The families left behind face the challenges of daily living as they endure separation and worry. Their sacrifices are great, and we owe them much as well.
It is the American character to answer the call of duty. It also is the American character to be grateful to those who answer that call. One has only to look at the Maine Troop Greeters, who have greeted some 1.5 million troops at the Bangor Airport, to know how much the people of our State value our service members. They treat our veterans with similar generosity and a spirit of caring.
We owe our veterans so much, and repay that debt in part, but only in part, with the gratitude we express on Veterans Day. As a nation, we must also repay our debt with the health care, rehabilitation services, and educational and employment opportunities our veterans have earned through their service to our country.
I am committed to ensuring that the government keeps that sacred obligation. Initiatives I have undertaken in the Senate this year to help ensure that veterans receive the quality, accessible health care and other benefits they earned through their service include the bipartisan Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act that would expand a successful program that helps those who care for wounded, ill, or injured veterans at home.
Being in the Town of Freedom on Veterans Day brought to mind one of my earliest childhood memories -- going with my father, a World War II veteran, to the patriotic parades in my hometown of Caribou. He hoisted me high on his shoulders, and from the best vantage point along the route, I saw hats go off and hands go over hearts as Caribou paid its respects to our flag and honored our veterans for their service to our country.
Our veterans provide all of us with an inspiring view from strong shoulders. From that vantage point, we see that the burden of service must be borne willingly and with modesty. We see that challenges must be met and that threats must be confronted. And we see that we have an obligation to always respect, honor, and support those who make that view possible.