“This past Veterans Day, we marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. It was a long and bloody war, leaving little to celebrate besides the final few months of victories that brought the war to an end. But with the holidays upon us, it is worth looking back at the first December of that war when both sides paused to celebrate Christmas.
It started with troops decorating their trenches with candles and Christmas trees, singing carols and exchanging greetings, and then venturing into no man’s land to trade schnapps, chocolate, cigarettes, and souvenirs. There were prisoner swaps, soccer games, and joint funerals for the dead. A British barber even cut a German soldier’s hair.
A captain wrote home to England, “We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front.” Yet even as he wrote, he could hear gunfire farther down the line, and before the week was over, that captain was killed in action.
The war would drag on for another 4 years, bringing Americans into the fight, including two men dear to me—my great-grandfather, Capt. A.D. Somerville, and my wife’s grandfather, Private Onslow Bullard. But the Christmas truce of 1914 still reminds us of the higher truths behind the holidays—the truths that give meaning to life, meaning to the selflessness of those who offer their lives in defense of others, and meaning to our mission of caring for them afterwards.
In my first 100 days as Secretary, I have visited 16 states and over 40 VA facilities from Anchorage to Orlando. I am so impressed with your commitment to Veterans. As I said at my first Town Hall with you, this Department provides world-class services to Veterans, and I am still stunned that the story has not been told to the American people.
As you gather with family and friends for the holidays, wherever you may be across the Nation, please take the opportunity to share your stories of the great things you do every day for Veterans and their families. Let them know that, at VA, the season of giving lasts all year long.
To the men and women of our Armed Forces, to the Nation’s 20 million Veterans, and to our 380,000 VA employees, I offer you and your families my heartfelt thanks for your selfless service and best wishes for the holidays and the coming year. May God bless us all.”