Since its founding in 1776, the United States has fought in about a dozen major wars—and intervened militarily on hundreds of others—with every generation of Americans witnessing combat in one form or another. As such, tens of millions of Americans have suited up for the armed forces, including some 16 million during World War II alone. These service members include 31 of the 44 presidents.
Well over 1 million Americans have died in warfare, the vast majority in just two conflicts: the Civil War and World War II.
Given their importance to U.S. history, it’s no surprise that veterans have a played hallowed role in the public’s consciousness. Habitually honored at sporting events and on patriotic holidays, especially Veterans Day, the oratory surrounding veterans can be deeply inspiring.
Below are some poignant quotes by and about U.S. veterans.
“I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
- Nathan Hale, 1776, in his alleged last words prior to being executed by the British for being a spy.
“The unparalleled perseverance of the armies of the United States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle.”
- General (and future President) George Washington, 1783, in his farewell orders to the Continental Army.
“The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated [this ground], far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
- President Abraham Lincoln, 1863, in the Gettysburg Address.
“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
- Civil rights leader and formerly enslaved worker Frederick Douglass, 1863, in remarks encouraging the enlistment of African American soldiers during the Civil War.
“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.”
- President Woodrow Wilson, 1919, in proclaiming Armistice Day (which would later become Veterans Day) on the anniversary of the end of World War I.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
- Philosopher George Santayana, 1922, in his book, “Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies.” (This quote is often misattributed to Plato.)
“I saw your sons and your husbands, your brothers and your sweethearts. I saw how they worked, played, fought, and lived. I saw some of them die. I saw more courage, more good humor in the face of discomfort, more love in an era of hate, and more devotion to duty than could exist under tyranny.”
- Comedian Bob Hope, 1944, in “I Never Left Home,” his book about going on tour to entertain the troops, which he did in every U.S. conflict from World War II to the Persian Gulf War.
“The nicest veterans…the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who’d really fought.”
- Author Kurt Vonnegut, 1969, in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” his novel about the Allied firebombing of Dresden during World War II.
“Veterans know better than anyone else the price of freedom, for they’ve suffered the scars of war. We can offer them no better tribute than to protect what they have won for us.”
- President Ronald Reagan, 1983, in a radio address to the nation.
“In war, using their native language, they relayed secret messages that turned the course of battle. At home, they carried for decades the secret of their own heroism.”
- President George W. Bush, 2001, in remarks honoring the Navajo code talkers of World War II.
“Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war.”
- Senator John McCain, 2008, in a foreign policy speech.
"How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!"
- Maya Angelou, writer and civil rights activist who received the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”
- John F. Kennedy in his 1963 Thanksgiving proclamation, issued before his death.
“Homeless and at-risk veterans need more than just shelter. We must give them the tools to empower themselves and reclaim the self-worth and dignity which comes from occupying a place in the American dream. It is a dream they fought so hard to defend for the rest of us.”
- Homelessness advocate and film producer Maria Cuomo Cole, 2015, in an editorial pointing out that tens of thousands of vets are homeless.