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Veterans Day, a year in review

The Pacific Arch at the World War II Memorial with the Atlantic Arch in the background. Photo by Scott D. Welch/Wikimedia Commons

On Nov. 11, 1918, the Allied nations and Germany temporarily ceased fighting, marking the beginning of the end of World War I. The armistice began at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.

A year later, when President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day in 1919, he said the day would “be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.” After World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Armistice with Veterans.

Since Nov. 11, 2012, four veterans were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, service members faced challenges accessing benefits and adequate medical care and the last World War II vet serving in the Senate passed away. In honor of the holiday, we share some NewsHour stories about veterans from the past year.

Valor in battle

President Barack Obama awarded Congressional Medals of Honor to four veterans in 2013, the nation’s highest military honor. More than 3,400 soldiers have been decorated with the award since it was created in 1861.

Photo by U.S. Army

Former Army Capt. William Swenson was honored for his brave actions to aid his fellow soldiers when his unit was ambushed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, where Swenson served as an embedded trainer and mentor to Afghan security forces. When he saw that another officer, Kenneth Westbrook, had been shot in the neck, Swenson traveled 50 meters — with bullets biting all around — to where Westbrook lay. Swenson pressed a bandage to Westbrooks’ wounds with one hand and called for a medevac with the other, trying to keep his buddy calm until air support arrived.

Photo by U.S. Army

President Obama honored Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter in August 2013 for Carter’s heroic actions during the Battle of Kamdesh at a combat outpost in the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan. After 300 anti-Afghan forces surrounded the outpost, Carter reinforced troops along southern defense line with additional ammunition, killed enemy troops, and treated and rescued one wounded soldier. His actions helped hold the outpost until reinforcements arrived 12 hours after the initial attacks.

Father Emil Kapaun celebrating Mass using the hood of a Jeep as his altar, Oct 7, 1950. Photo by Col. Raymond Skeehan/U.S. Army

Though he never carried a firearm of even carried a weapon, Army captain and Catholic priest Fr. Emil Joseph Kapaun, a chaplain in the Korean War, was posthumously awarded the medal 60 years after his death as a prisoner during the Korean War. Kapaun took care of wounded soldiers even when it compromised his own safety; he even stole food to give to fellow prisoners during his stay at a Chinese POW camp.

U.S. Army

Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha patrols the perimeter outside Forward Operating Base Bostic, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Photo by U.S. Army

Army Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha, was awarded the medal for his valorous actions in one of the bloodiest battles of the war in Afghanistan in 2009. When nearly 300 Taliban fighters ripped through a lone American outpost on the eastern edges of Afghanistan, Romesha found himself and his army brothers in peril. Outnumbered and facing an enemy force surging through his camp, Romesha repeatedly put himself in the line of fire to muster his fellow soldiers and lead the charge that eventually forced the enemy back.

Honoring those who served

The non-profit program Honor Flight gives veterans the opportunity to fly to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials dedicated to the wars in which they served. For many veterans, especially those who have served in World War II, this may be the only chance they will get to see these memorials.

“One of the greatest joys is when you look over at the World War II Memorial and you see it filled with World War II veterans,” founder of the Honor Flights program Earl Morse said. “That’s what this is all about. It’s their memorial. They have earned it, and they need to see it.”

World War II veteran Marvin Murphy was one of 30 men who took part in an “Honor Flight” this year. After WWII, Murphy says those who served didn’t expect special recognition. “I don’t think, if they were like me, the country didn’t owe me anything. … They took care of us while were in there.”

Remembering soldiers now gone

President Barack Obama observed Memorial Day by visiting graves of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan at Arlington National Cemetery and meeting with family members of the fallen. The president urged Americans to not take for granted the sacrifices made by U.S. troops.

Frank Lautenberg

The U.S. Senate lost one of its longest-serving members and its last World War II veteran on June 3. New Jersey’s five-term Sen. Frank Lautenberg died of pneumonia at the age of 89.

Bud Day

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reflected on his friendship with Col. Bud Day.

Col. Bud Day, an Air Force fighter pilot who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five-and-a-half years, died July 25 in Florida at the age of 88. One of America’s most decorated servicemen, Day was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, among many other awards. Day was also the POW cellmate of Sen. John McCain at two different prison camps, including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” Both endured injury and deprivation.

Veterans face challenges at home

Claims for veterans’ benefits pile up

Stacks of Veterans Affairs claim folders overtake a regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C. These photos were included in a 2012 report from the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General.

In 2009, 11,000 veterans were waiting more than a year for benefits. In 2012, that figure was 245,000, a more than 2,000 percent increase.

In March, NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan talked with veterans and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki about the delays and backlog for benefits.

Watch an extended interview with three Iraq and Afghanistan war Army veterans who see the claims backlog as a systemic problem. Sgt. Rachel McNeill and Staff Sgt. Zach McIlwain are veterans of the Iraq War. Capt. Aaron Thorson served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Explore more veterans’ stories about how waiting for benefits has affected their lives in an interactive map, created by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Overprescription of dangerous drugs

Some veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home to face another battle: addiction to narcotic painkillers prescribed by their doctors. The death rate from overdoses of those drugs at Veterans Affairs hospitals is twice the national average. But data shows the VA continues to prescribe increasing amounts of narcotic painkillers to many patients.

Vets won’t get shut down

Photo by Cindy Huang/ PBS NewsHour

When a partial government shutdown closed the national parks and monuments, a group of visiting World War II Memorial veterans were escorted past the gates by members of Congress in order to visit the memorial.

Your tributes to American heroes

Veterans have touched the lives of so many Americans — they are our family members, friends and heroes. PBS NewsHour asked our audience for their stories. Read some of the tributes and share your own.

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