The last few generations of military veterans have been fortunate to live in an America that, by and large, respects, appreciates, and admires the service and sacrifice of the United States military in wartime. While the wars have been far from popular in terms of public-opinion polls, the American citizenry remains quite respectful of service in wartime, defense of the country, and the institution of the U.S. military.

Many veterans who fought in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, for example, were not received home with the same admiration and respect of their fellow Americans that returning service personnel today largely enjoy. For veterans of the Korean war, much of that failure can be attributed to the politicization of the conflict in the presidential race of 1952. Republican Presidential nominee and former U.S. Army General Dwight Eisenhower campaigned on bold action to end the war in Korea. In the decades that followed the armistice signed in 1953, the conflict was largely shaded by the war in Vietnam.

For Vietnam veterans, the unpopular nature of the conflict and conscription led the public away from public displays of appreciation for returning veterans. Further, the public’s opposition to compulsory military service and conscription during the war in Vietnam conflated with the public’s angst and opposition to the policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

To our collective shame, this angst over government policy was unfairly and embarrassingly thrust instead upon the heroic fighting men of the uniformed services as they returned home from duty. Instead of being recognized by their country for proudly and bravely charging into battle against an enemy that did not lend itself to easy defeat, veterans of the Vietnam war were too often marginalized from American society and left to bury their military service beneath the shame heaped upon the men who fought the war instead of the men who crafted the policies that drove the war.

Only recently has the American public begun to recognize the heroes of the Korean and Vietnam wars in ways that they richly deserve.

For Korean and Vietnam veterans especially, their country unfortunately went the long way around in properly recognizing their service, sacrifice, and heroism. In stark contradiction, the country has seemingly had nothing but the utmost admiration for veterans of the Second World War. The men who fought abroad and the women who worked the factories at home quite literally saved the world. However, even veterans of that great conflict were forced to wait for a national memorial dedicated to their service and sacrifice. It wasn’t until 2004 that the National World War Two Memorial in Washington, D.C. was inaugurated—the heroism of its warfighters and veterans cast into stone. Now, many more generations of Americans visit and render proper respect and appreciation.

Veterans Day is a very personal day for many of us. I recall the faces and personalities of men and women I was blessed to serve with in Afghanistan through two year-long tours. For me, they represent this generation’s finest Americans. That is often a phrase defined as cliche, but for many of us, it most closely describes how we feel about the people who stood next to us during the most difficult times in the conflicts since September 11, 2001. Undeniable courage, commitment to duty, loyalty, and valor are among the words that most often echo through my mind on Veterans Day.

To say that I am proud to have had the honor of serving next to these finest of human beings is to understate my feelings for the soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen I was privileged to serve alongside. To my dying day, these will be men and women who I identify as the finest America had to offer during one of its darkest hours. To paraphrase and steal a phrase, these men and women responded to a call to arms that no one sounded. They were compelled to serve not by conscription or policy of government, but by love of country and a motivation to defend their nation in its time of peril. When attacked, the country did indeed respond with its best and brightest.