If you don’t know the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day, you’re not the only one. But with Veterans Day behind us, I want to highlight a significant difference between the two holidays which many people often neglect.
Put simply, Veterans Day happens on Nov. 11 each year, and is meant to show thanks to all living members of the U.S. military. Memorial Day is celebrated the last Monday in May and is dedicated to honor those who died serving our country.
On Memorial Day, members of the military don’t want to be told “thank you for your service.” While we greatly appreciate it, the day is set aside for honoring the brothers and sisters we have lost, whether recent or long ago.
The website for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs describes the beginnings of Memorial Day as follows:
“Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.”
Veterans Day, originally known as “Armistice Day,” is held when World War 1 ended — Nov. 11, 1918 — to honor everyone that has served in the U.S. military.
Some veterans take offense to being thanked for their service on Memorial Day: on Memorial Day, we think about everyone that has died serving our country, and too many times veterans think about someone they once knew.
Another U.S. Marine and I were running in a small town in Va. last Memorial Day and I held the U.S. flag while he held the Marine Corps flag to honor our fallen service members. As we circled the town we held the two flags high above our heads –with the American flag always held higher– and the wind lapped against our faces as we heard people clapping and cheering and motivating us to keep running. There were other American flags that we ran by posted up on Victorian-esque house columns and above small coffee shops, and there were veterans out wearing POW/MIA apparel.
But at one point, a man in a rustic navy blue truck rolled down his window as we passed and said, “thank you for your service.” The other Marine didn’t respond, but I muttered a quiet and breathy “thank you” as we passed him. It made me think for a second: we didn’t want to steal any honor or take any attention away from what Memorial Day was meant for. We didn’t earn anything to be told “thank you” on a holiday dedicated to remembering service members that have died for us. We finished our run and went our separate ways.
The men and women being remembered on Memorial Day sacrificed more than any of us ever have and probably ever will. If we gave what they did, we wouldn’t have been there to run in remembrance of them; we might very well be in Arlington Cemetery in D.C., with a set of red roses planted in the ground next to us and a small U.S. flag waving in the wind alongside our tombstone, but we didn’t earn that.
It’s not that veterans don’t appreciate being thanked their service; they do. It’s just that Memorial Day isn’t the day for that, and it can have the effect of making a veteran feel like they are accepting something they didn’t earn.
Veterans, in my experience, appreciate being thanked for their service. At every chance I get, I make a point of thanking a veteran, and you should too. But for Memorial Day and Veterans Day next year let’s all be a little more conscious of why the difference between the two matter, and let’s direct our honor appropriately.