Local author and veteran explains how the American spirit came to be.

Ask 10 veterans what the American spirit is and you’ll get 10 different answers. It’s courage, some say. To others, it’s resilience. Still others describe it as a sense of shared duty. All those answers and more are right. The American spirit is additive, multifaceted, and — quite literally — alive. It lives in the members of our military, past and present, who have sacrificed so that we may even debate what that spirit is. More so than any other group, American veterans have woven and defended the tapestry of ideals that is the American spirit.

The American spirit, however, is not immortal; it must be nurtured. Particularly around the holidays, it must be replenished and enriched by the citizens who benefit from it. The American spirit’s survival requires that we remember its sources, its history, and even its lapses.

The Evolution of the American Spirit

Perhaps no event formed — or endangered — the American spirit more so than the U.S. Civil War. Over the course of four years, between 620,000 and 750,000 Americans died not just to settle the question of slavery, but to discover unity as a critical part of the country’s spirit. Divisions from the war arguably continue to this day.

Due to its geographic location, Missouri’s spirit was especially tested by the war. “It wasn’t like living in Alabama or another southern state, where almost everyone aligned with the Confederate cause,” Jeremy Amick, a Missouri military historian, author, and veteran, explains. “There was so much guerrilla warfare and small skirmishing. It was brother against brother.”

According to Amick, a war that gets comparatively little attention was responsible for bringing American brothers and sisters back together following the civil war. Approximately 11,500 Missourians answered President William McKinley’s call for troops to fight the 1898 Spanish–American War. Although the war lasted just four months, it reunited the nation.

“It helped heal old wounds, in a way,” Amick says. “People came from the north and the south, the east and the west, to build this army. Homegrown units helped communities put aside their differences.”

The Spanish-American War may have restored unity to the American spirit, but it would take a larger war to add a new pillar to it. World War I engaged Americans on such a scale that it solidified shared investment as part of that spirit. No state, in fact, may have invested more into the war to end all wars than Missouri.

“If you want to talk about Missouri’s role [in American wars], I think there’s no better place to look than World War I,” Amick argues. He considers Laclede native General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, to be a linchpin in crafting the American spirit. Beyond his military success, Pershing’s servant leadership, personal sacrifices, and devotion to his men endeared him to the American public.

In addition to Pershing, Amick points to Enoch Crowder, judge advocate general of the U.S. Army between 1911 and 1923, as a Missourian who shaped the American spirit during the World War I. Crowder heavily promoted the Selective Service Act, passed in 1917, to ensure that Pershing had a military force to take overseas. In doing so, he brought nearly three million men into military service, including 156,000 Missourians who served out of 750,000 who registered for the draft.

Beyond the draft and the scale of the war, new technologies encouraged a wider crop of Americans to share the burden of service. Because of World War I-era innovations, “a lot more people became interested in specific aspects of service,” Amick says. “They’d enlist because they could fly planes or work with tanks.”

If World War I solidified unity and popular service as part of the American spirit, World War II did the same for resilience and social progress. Out of about 407,000 Americans killed in World War II, 8,000 or so were Missourians. Other Missourians endured rationing, scrap metal drives, and bombing drills as part of daily life. Missourians purchased over $3 billion in war bonds, not to mention the countless victory gardens grown and volunteer hours logged.

Indirectly, World War II built social improvement into the American spirit by laying bare injustices faced by troops of color. Amick tells the story of Tuskegee Airman James Shipley, an African-American man from Tipton who enlisted at 19 in the U.S. Army just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

When Shipley returned home, he visited a Kansas City-area ice cream shop. Despite being in uniform, he was told the shop would not serve African-Americans from the front counter. “He was denied the very rights he had fought for,” Amick says, “despite having willingly volunteered to serve his country.”

Discrimination like the kind Shipley faced set the stage for a post-World War II military policy instituted by President Harry S. Truman, another Missouri native. By desegregating the military in 1947, Truman cemented social equality and justice as part of the American spirit.

“The military has led the way in a surprising number of positive social changes,” Amick points out. “It preceded the desegregation of public schools by a number of years. There were some growing pains, but it became a working model.”

That egalitarian, post-World War II sense of progress continued through the Korean War, in which approximately 900 Missourians were killed. The battleship USS Missouri played a key role in defending South Korea from communist invasion. Once all was said and done, the nation mourned the death of 40,000 American troops, many of whom had fought in integrated units for the first time.

The greatest test to the American spirit since the Civil War, however, was the Vietnam War. During the conflict’s 15-year duration, more than 1,400 Missourians and over 58,000 American military members paid the ultimate price. But in Amick’s view, it was negative media coverage and urban-rural divides that tore most at the American spirit during the Vietnam era.

“Everyone saw images of men coming back from Vietnam and being spat upon, being called ‘baby killer,’” Amick says. “But if you talk to people around here, in the Jefferson City area, they were never treated like that. There were a lot of Korean [War] and World War II vets around — they understood the concept of separating the war from the warrior.”

The sense of patriotism that we feel when we think of the American spirit today was restored during the Desert Storm and 9/11 eras, according to Amick. He cites the example of a friend who served in both Kuwait and Vietnam who received a tearful, highway-lined community welcome after coming home from Desert Storm — the kind of welcome he didn’t receive after Vietnam.

After the September 11 attacks, Amick experienced that swell of patriotism firsthand. “I was in the service when it happened,” Amick recalls. “Before that, terrorism was something you saw on TV. All of the sudden, it was real. It united the nation again because it made us feel vulnerable.”

Despite continuing challenges around terrorism and national unity, Amick remains optimistic. “I think the level of participation and patriotism have been sustained,” he says. “I’ve never seen as many military charities and nonprofits as I do now.”

Holidays Heal the Spirit

The American spirit has been and will continue to be tested at home and abroad. Missourians, however, are hardly content to sit on the sidelines. With Missouri’s military community topping half a million individuals — 458,702 veterans and 46,039 active duty and reserve members — public and private organizations are serving those who safeguard that spirit.

The Missouri Veterans Commission, for example, employs 44 veteran service officers around the state to help veterans access their benefits. Additionally, it maintains seven skilled nursing homes and five veterans’ cemeteries. The MVC coordinates with organizations like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as well as nonprofits like Operation Bugle Boy, a charitable organization Amick supports and recommends to those interested in giving back to veterans.

Whatever their preferred military charity, though, MVC veteran resource coordinator Jamie Talkin recommends Missourians do their research. She suggests the Missouri Military Family Relief Fund, a state tax checkoff, as an effective program for supporting veterans. Her colleague, Jamie Melchert, MVC strategic planning and communication administrator, also admires the work of Welcome Home, which converted a former motel in Columbia into an apartment-style community for homeless veterans.

Above all, however, Melchert and Talkin encourage veterans to take advantage of their state and federal benefits. “Reach out to [the MVC],” Talkin tells veteran readers. “We want to help you. That’s why our veteran service officers are there: to make it as easy as possible for you to get the benefits you deserve.”

Still, public benefits and private donations can never truly repay the work Missouri’s veterans have done. Wartime or peacetime, Desert Storm or World War II, black or white, male or female, veterans have given an indispensable gift to all Missourians and all Americans: a spirit that each of us is free to define and celebrate however we may choose.