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Bar News - December 19, 2008

How Veterans Paved the Way for Legal Progress


The following remarks were delivered by R. James Steiner at a Veterans’ Day observance in Pittsfield, NH on Nov. 11, 2008.

As we honor the contributions and sacrifices of all veterans this year, let me highlight some achievements attributable to distinct classes of veterans during the last 90 years. Indeed, these veterans helped shape new laws over the years—laws that have culminated in major changes to our immediate political landscape.

1914-1918: Women served in the armed forces in WWI, including some 30,000 nurses and signal corps volunteers. Many gave their lives in Europe and some are buried there. Others returned home as veterans, having fought for a country where they did not have the right to vote.

Due in part to the military service provided by these women, the 19th Amendment, which barred prohibitions against voters based on gender, became the law of the land on August 18, 1920.

1939-1945: Substantial numbers of black soldiers served in the armed forces during WWII, most in segregated units. A number of these units earned particular praise, among them the 99th Pursuit Squadron (the Tuskegee Airmen) and the 92nd Infantry, the Buffalo Soldiers division. They fought and died for their country on foreign shores, but these black soldiers returned to a segregated society.

In 1954, in part because of the energy generated by the service of black soldiers in WWII (and even earlier in our history), the United States Supreme Court ruled "separate but equal" unconstitutional. Under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the case of Brown v. Board of Education, was resolved. This law set the scene for civil rights reforms in the 1960s.

1965-1971: Young men aged 18 served in combat in Vietnam, and gave their lives, but could not vote. (I include here the build-up period when larger military units deployed to Vietnam, including many young draftees.)

The 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on July 11, 1971 providing the right to vote to those 18 years of age.

On this 90th anniversary of the armistice of World War I, "the war to end all wars," we look back and take pride in the fact that as a country we have grown and matured. The unselfish acts of those who served their country, but did not share equally in the privileges of its society, paved the way for two historic events to occur during our 2008 presidential campaign: for the first time, a black man was nominated to run for President of the United States and a woman was nominated to run for Vice-President. Even more momentous was the outcome of the election, when the first black man actually won.

As you think of the history made this year, I ask you to remember the sacrifices by all members of the armed forces and to thank them for the many freedoms we all take for granted. Thank you veterans, young and old, thank you for your service and sacrifice for all of us.

We’ve come a long way.

R. James Steiner is an attorney with D’Amante Couser Steiner Pellerin in Concord, a graduate of West Point and former Army Green Beret.


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