On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western Front of World War I. The cessation of fighting between Germany and America’s allies was commemorated as Armistice Day until 1954, when Congress changed its name to Veterans Day. As we honor our veterans this year, we also observe the 100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice.
Of the almost 20,000 troops who served in the “Great War” from Idaho, 782 died from combat, accidents or disease. One soldier, Pvt. Thomas Neibaur of Sugar City, earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in France.
Private Niebaur is one of 35 servicemen with strong Idaho connections to have earned this high honor since the establishment of Idaho Territory in 1863. They were from every corner of the state and include African-American Vernon Baker, of St. Maries, who served in World War II; William Nakamura, who enlisted from the Minidoka Internment Camp and died in World War II; Gurdon Barter, a Civil War veteran laid to rest in Latah County; David Bleak, of Shelly, who served in the Korean War; Bernie Fisher, of Kuna, who served in the Vietnam War; and Frank Reasoner, of Kellogg, who died in the Vietnam War.
Not every Idahoan who bravely served our state and country has received the Medal of Honor. I think of Raymond Finley, of St. Maries, a Native American who died in Vietnam in 1965, and Octavio Herrera, of Caldwell, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2013. Carrie French, also of Caldwell, died in Iraq in 2005. They did not get the medal, but they are on the honor roll of Idahoans who deserve a place in our hearts.
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We are deeply indebted to these and all the other men and women who have stepped forward to serve this great country. Their service and sacrifice have made it possible for us to enjoy the freedom and opportunities that we sometimes take for granted. Few nations around the world afford their citizens the same protections and privileges — freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law, the right to choose our leaders, and so much more.
We owe our veterans an obligation to defend the system that they sacrificed to preserve for us. If we don’t work hard to protect our system of government on the home front, as they did on the battlefield, we will have let them down.
What can we learn from them? They came from different backgrounds, different religions, different racial or ethnic groups. On the field of battle, they were one. All of them were Americans. They had a mission to carry out for their country — to protect each other and to preserve our way of life. They believed in and practiced service over self. During my service in Vietnam, I often heard the war being questioned, but that did not in any way affect anyone’s dedicated service to their country.
We can honor their service and their sacrifice by pulling together, by working together for the common good, by treating each other with respect and dignity, by recognizing that each of us is entitled to his or her own opinion, as long as it is not destructive of the basic principles of this great country. Let’s pull together and get along to keep faith with our veterans, who gave us the opportunity to live in peace and freedom.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho Supreme Court justice and attorney general.