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National Military Appreciation Month reaches its peak this Memorial Day weekend, as the nation remembers the individuals who gave their lives while serving their country. There are actually two national holidays, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, which honor the sacrifice of Americans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces, and celebrate our nation’s values of duty, honor and civic responsibility. Interestingly, and likely because these holidays appear to celebrate the same thing, many people confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day. It is important to understand their difference.
Memorial Day is a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. While those who died are also remembered, on Veterans Day, this holiday is designated to thank and honor all those who served honorably in the military — in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank living veterans for their service, to acknowledge their contributions to our national security, and to underscore the fact that all those who served — not only those who died — have sacrificed and done their duty. So you see, the holidays, though similar in the way they commemorate the sacrifices of thousands of American service members, are quite distinctly different and, as such, have different histories.
Memorial Day is the older of the two holidays, having its roots in the Civil War. First known as “Decoration Day,” it was instituted by former Union Army Maj. Gen. John A. Logan to honor those who died in the armed forces. The first official observance of Memorial Day was May 28, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
With General Orders No. 11, Logan designated May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country,” and to conduct special services as circumstances permitted. He declared, “Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.” He also asked that the nation renew its pledge to assist the soldiers’ and sailors’ widows and orphans.
The General said he inaugurated the observance “with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.” After World War I, the holiday was extended to all soldiers who had fallen in all American wars. The observance has continued, although now Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May.
The establishment of Veterans Day as a national holiday had a different history. It stems from the armistice that ended combat in World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. In November 1919, one year later, President Woodrow Wilson declared Nov. 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. It honored all who had served in the U.S. Armed Forces in World War I. In 1938, Congress approved a bill that made Nov. 11 an annual legal holiday known as “Armistice Day” that would honor the cause of world peace, but it was primarily used to honor World War I veterans. It would probably still be known as “Armistice Day” had World War I, “The War to End All Wars,” lived up to its name. A few years after the day became a national holiday, the United States entered a war — World War II — that called on more than 16.5 million American men and women to serve in the U.S. military. Of those, some 292,000 died in battle. In 1954, after World War II, Representative Edwin K. Rees of Kansas proposed that Nov. 11 be set aside as an occasion to honor those who served America in all wars instead of only World War I. Shortly afterward, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill which officially changed the name of the holiday and broadened its purpose to celebrate all those who served or are serving in the armed forces.
Memorial Day and Veterans Day honor the innumerable individuals who sacrificed themselves to preserve the freedoms all Americans enjoy, with Memorial Day remembering those who gave their lives, and Veterans Day honoring all who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Events to celebrate the service member community this Memorial Day can be found across the nation, and while many authors and media professionals use this time to remember specific soldiers, many family members and friends choose to share their memories in private. However you decide to honor those service members who gave the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our country and freedoms, remember the historical significance of their service and their admirable example of duty, honor and selflessness.