Military appreciation holidays and Military Appreciation Month are how we all get to salute those who have served, as well as those who now serve, and their families. Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Armed Forces Day each serve a specific purpose, and each has its own unique backstory.
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Veterans Day—originally known as Armistice Day—was created to mark the end of the first World War and pay tribute to the soldiers who served and the roughly 116,000 who died.
America had come together in a unique way to fight World War I, and leaders wanted to join in honoring those who fought and died. On November 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first Armistice Day proclamation.
Several changes to the date and name followed:
- In 1926, Congress asked President Calvin Coolidge to issue an annual proclamation to observe November 11 as a day to honor veterans.
- In 1938, the bill to make it a national holiday called it “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day.”
- In 1954, Congress passed, and President Eisenhower signed, a bill to establish the holiday for all veterans, rather than just those from World War I. The change had been requested by major US veterans’ organizations.
- In 1971, the observance was moved to the 4th Monday in October.
- In 1978, it was moved back to November 11.
“Growing up, Veterans Day was huge and Memorial Day was huge. I went from being very aware of the holidays growing up to becoming a military wife during the Vietnam era. Soldiers were treated horribly—no one was grateful, and it hurt. After my husband retired, I remember being at a restaurant and someone thanked him for his service for the first time. He was very touched.” —Carolyn B., military spouse
“I was always aware of Veterans Day and Memorial Day when they would come around, and as an adult I began sending cards on Veterans Day to my veteran family members—and I take time to reflect on the sacrifices of those we honor on Memorial Day.” —Jake G., military son
Memorial Day—originally Decoration Day—is the last Monday in May. It is specifically to honor those who died in the performance of their military duties.
Americans traditionally visit cemeteries on Memorial Day, place flags on graves, have parades and remember those who gave their lives. A National Moment of Remembrance is observed at 3 p.m. local time. Flags are flown at half-staff.
From 1868 to 1970, Memorial Day was May 30. In 1971, it was changed by Congress to the last Monday in May.
There are at least 25 claims of credit for the idea of Memorial Day.
- Some of those claims are based on the fact that women decorated the graves of soldiers in the south during the Civil War.
- Some claim the origin should be credited to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, when he dedicated the cemetery there.
- In March 1866, Mary Ann Williams of the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Ga., wrote to the press asking for help establishing a specific day to decorate graves of fallen soldiers throughout the south. April 26 was the date chosen.
- In 1868, Gen. John Logan was the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ group of former Union Army soldiers. He proclaimed May 5 as “Decoration Day,” a national day of remembrance for Civil War dead. That year events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states.
- During WWI the observance changed from recognizing those fallen in the Civil War to recognizing those killed in all US wars.
- The name was officially changed to Memorial Day in 1967.
“As one might expect, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Armed Forces Day hold particular meaning for me for different reasons, owing to the nature of the observances themselves as well as feelings more personal to me…friends lost, that sort of thing. Years after my service ended and as I’ve gotten older and further removed from that time of my life, I absolutely look at these through a different lens.” —Dayton W., Marine veteran
Armed Forces Day celebrates members currently serving in the military. It is celebrated by nations around the world on various dates. In the United States, it’s the third Saturday in May, which falls near the end of Armed Forces Week.
- Armed Forces Day began in 1949 to honor those serving in all five branches: Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard. In addition to honoring serving military, it is intended to expand public understanding of the military mission.
- The day was established by President Harry Truman—a World War I veteran—on February 2, 1950. At the first celebration, flags were flown, bombers flew over every state capital and 10,000 veterans and active-duty troops marched in Washington, D.C.
- In March 1961 President John F. Kennedy—a World War II veteran—declared Armed Forces Day a national holiday.
“It’s important to have these national holidays that recognize the military because they are a big reason why we live in a free country. These are men and women who risk putting their own lives on the line to protect others.” —Abigail C., military spouse
“I believe in honoring the people who served. I also differentiate between military on the front lines and folks like me who were by and large safely out of harm’s way.” —Fred G., Air Force veteran
Congress designated May as Military Appreciation Month in 1999. A number of recognition days fall in the month. Because the love and support of military families is vital to the military mission, some of those days recognize family members. In addition to Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day they include:
- Loyalty Day (May 1) A day to reaffirm loyalty to the United States, it’s been marked by every president since 1958.
- Military Spouse Appreciation Day (Friday before Mother’s Day) Proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
- V-E Day (May 8) Marks the end of hostilities in Europe in World War II.
- Children of Fallen Patriots Day (May 13) A day set aside to remind us all of our continuing obligation to remember and care for those who lost military parents.
“My husband comes from a long line and deep history of being in the military and public service as well. As a military spouse I’ve learned to be resilient and flexible. You have to be ready to serve at any given moment whether it be an overseas tour or ‘holding down the fort’ at home.” —Abigail C.
“When I pray, I always say, ‘Bless our service members and bring them home safely to their families.’ I appreciate their service and appreciate their families for dealing with what they have to deal with.” —Larry B., retired Army veteran
- Coast Guard Reserve Birthday (February 19)
- Month of the Military Caregiver (Month of May)
- Naval Reserve Birthday (March 3)
- Seabee Birthday (March 5)
- K9 Veterans Day (March 13)
- Vietnam Veterans Day (March 29)
- Month of the Military Child (Month of April)
- Gold Star Wives Day (April 5)
- Air Force Reserve Birthday (April 14)
- Army Reserve Birthday (April 23)
- National Military Brats Day (April 30)
- D-Day Anniversary (June 6)
- Army Birthday (June 14)
- Coast Guard Auxiliary Birthday (June 23)
- National PTSD Awareness Day (June 27)
- Korean War Armistice Day (July 27)
- Coast Guard Birthday (August 4)
- Purple Heart Day (August 7)
- V-J Day (August 14)
- Marine Corps Reserve Birthday (August 29)
- Patriot Day (September 11)
- POW/MIA Recognition Day (September 17)
- Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day (Last Sunday in September)
- Navy Birthday (October 13)
- National Day of the Deployed (October 26)
- Military Family Month (Month of November)
- Marine Corps Birthday (November 10)
- Pearl Harbor Day (December 7)
- National Guard Birthday (December 13)
“As an Army brat, I grew up mostly on military bases—so I was used to standing for the National Anthem before movies started and stopping to stand with my hand over my heart when Retreat played at the end of the workday. It wasn’t always easy to move every couple of years, but I wouldn’t trade that childhood for anything.” —Trish B., Military daughter
Author’s note: I’m not a veteran. But as a lifelong reader of history, I’ve learned the many ways veterans have made it possible for me to live my daily life. I have enormous respect for people who choose to serve. My family served in World War II, the Civil War, the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War. I owe them all, and the men and women they served with, more than I can say.