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Veterans Day commemorates more than veterans

Friday - 11/11/2011, 5:04am  ET

Tuskegee Airmen Lt. Col. James H. Harvey (AP)
Alcorn State University student Ivory Thomas, left, of Crystal Springs, shakes hands with Tuskegee Airmen Lt. Col. James H. Harvey, III, center, and Calvin Moret after she and other members of the Alcorn R.O.T.C. made a special presentation to the pair at the conclusion of a Veterans Day program at the G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011. (AP Photo/The Clarion-Ledger, Joe Ellis)

WASHINGTON -- Most federal holidays fall on a Monday -- but not Veterans Day, and there is a very important reason why.

America celebrates its veterans, specifically, on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, every year. That's when the guns of World War I fell silent.

"A very significant anniversary," says Ronald Spector, professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University.

The Great War officially ended on June 28, 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in France. But the fighting actually ended seven months before when an armistice was called between the Allied nations and Germany at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Exactly one year later, President Wilson proclaimed the day as the first commemoration of Armistice Day, as Veterans Day was originally called.

"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," Wilson said.

Spector spoke about what the end of World War I meant to Americans at the time.

"There were great expectations among many people that this was not only going to end all wars, but this was going to bring a newer, better world."

Armistice Day became a legal holiday in 1938, and in 1954 its name was officially changed to Veterans Day so that those who served in World War II -- and all the wars to follow -- could be recognized for their service as well.

Despite the significance of the holiday's date, the celebration of Veterans Day was changed in 1971 to fall on a Monday. This was the fate of most federal holidays during the Nixon administration to generate three-day weekends and holiday trips.

The Monday Veterans Day celebration lasted seven years, when, after much controversy, it was returned to its original observance, Nov. 11.

To this day, most Veterans Day ceremonies are held at 11 a.m.

WTOP's Hank Silverberg contributed to this report. Follow Hank and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)