“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” So said the ancient Greek general Pericles at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, in honor of the Athenian warriors who had fought — and in many cases died — fighting against Sparta.
Veterans of war, both past and present, have long shown this willingness to go out and meet all kinds of threats. And yet, while often honored — especially in victory — many veterans have found themselves isolated or abandoned when the fighting is over. Adjusting to normal life can be a struggle, and the ordeal of war can leave soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. In the last century or so, and especially after World War II, many nations have gained a greater understanding and appreciation of the need to support their soldiers when they come home. This was something that Abraham Lincoln recognized in his second inaugural address in 1865, when he urged the nation “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
Today, there are about 19 million veterans in the United States alone, and many millions more around the world. Here are some insights from 13 famous veterans, from as far back as the American Civil War up to the present day.
Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom.
— Mary Edwards Walker, Civil War surgeon who was the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army and the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor
I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, who fought at the Battle of the Somme during World War I
Liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once — and then stop. Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them, and then keep fighting eternally to hold them.
— Alvin York, sergeant and Medal of Honor recipient who was one of the most decorated U.S. Army soldiers of World War I
The soldier is the army. No army is better than its soldiers. The soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one's country.
— George S. Patton, who fought in World War I and later became a general in the U.S. Army during World War II
People are very quick to ridicule others for showing fear. But we rarely know the secret springboards behind human action. The man who shows great fear today may be tomorrow's hero. Who are we to judge?
— Audie Murphy, first lieutenant who became one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of World War II
When I went to war in World War II, we had two fears. One was we would be killed. The other was that we might have to kill somebody.
— Kurt Vonnegut, infantry intelligence scout who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and survived the firebombing of Dresden
Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
— John F. Kennedy, in his now-famous 1961 inaugural address
It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.
— Norman Schwarzkopf, battalion commander in the Vietnam War and later commander of United States Central Command during the Gulf War
It doesn’t matter how tough things get, you’re tougher. Don’t give up on yourself. Let the others do that.
— Bruce P. Crandall, U.S. Army colonel who received the Medal of Honor for his actions as a Bell Huey helicopter pilot during the Battle of Ia Drang in the Vietnam War
Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war.
— John McCain, U.S. Navy captain during the Vietnam War and recipient of numerous military decorations
Throughout my life I've met plenty of superheroes, but the strongest and most effective among them were simply human and knew they weren't perfect. They were the men and women who, like my father, believed in their duty to country and sacrificed for others without hesitation.
— Ann E. Dunwoody, Gulf War veteran who became the first female four-star general in U.S. military history
I earned the title “Marine,” no one gave it to me. I’ll be proud of that as long as I’m alive.
— Rob Riggle, actor and comedian who served in Liberia, Kosovo, Albania, and Afghanistan and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel
I didn’t go out to win the Medal of Honor. The only reason I got it is because I feared failing my brothers and my guys more than I feared death or dismemberment. So I did what I did to protect them.
— Ty Carter, U.S. Army staff sergeant and Medal of Honor recipient for his actions during the 2009 Battle of Kamdesh in Afghanistan
Photo credit: US Navy/Interim Archives via Getty Images