WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 9, 2006) - Observing Veterans Day is especially important this year as America's military members put their lives in danger to protect the country and defend its freedoms, Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson told American Forces Press Service yesterday.

"We are a nation at war against an enemy that has openly vowed its desire to destroy us," Nicholson said. "They mean it; we know that because they have taken steps to do that, attacking us in different ways. So we have fellow citizens out there on the front lines trying to protect our freedom and procure freedom for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan."

Demands on the force waging the terror war give special importance to this year's Veterans Day observances and a renewed national commitment to honor and support its more than 24 million veterans, he said.

President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 Armistice Day in 1919 to commemorate the end of hostilities in World War I one year earlier. During the early 1950s, the name was changed to Veterans Day, and the observance was expanded to honor veterans of all wars.

Veterans Day upholds a longstanding American tradition that began when Gen. George Washington acknowledged the "debt of gratitude" the country owed its troops who served in the Continental Army, Nicholson said.

"And that has taken the form of our citizens compensating our veterans for any diminution they have suffered as a result of their service, whether physical or mental, and (that) it will provide them with continuous health care throughout their life for having served their country," he said.

Abraham Lincoln underscored that commitment during his second inaugural address, pledging to care for "him who has borne the battle, and his widow and his orphan," the secretary said.

Nicholson called this pledge, inscribed at the entrance to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters here, "the mantra of the VA."

The VA fulfills that pledge every day by providing health care to more than 7.5 million veterans, with more than 1 million visiting VA health care facilities every week, he noted. In addition, the VA provides benefits to more than 3.5 million veterans.

Continued support from the administration and Congress ensures that the VA can continue providing this first-class care for veterans, including those returning from combat, he said. He called the 70 percent growth in the VA health-care budget since 2001 a record.

"People want our veterans to be taken care of, but especially those who are coming back from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom with injuries," Nicholson said. "And we're organized to provide them with the very best care possible, both their physical and mental injuries. We are well-funded and well-staffed to do that."

During this year's Veterans Day commemorations, Nicholson urges all veterans to wear their service ribbons and medals to "show the pride they take in having served our country" and ensure that other people recognize the contributions they have made.

This demonstration of service will "add to the great patriotic fervor" that surrounds Veterans Day, he said.

Nicholson said he encourages all Americans, and especially veterans, to join in that fervor, as he and his staff at the VA will. "Every day is Veterans Day here at the VA," he said. "But the 11th day of the 11th month is always a very special and busy day here."