There are two national holidays that members of the military and all Americans consider sacred. Veterans Day and Memorial Day afford the nation an opportunity to reflect and show appreciation to the men and women in uniform, past and present, that provide the security and freedom that is the core of the national ethos. All too often, the public sees the holidays as interchangeable, or worse, redundant. However, while the sentiment of supporting the troops is the focus of each day, the true purpose and the history of the holidays are sometimes overlooked. 

The shorthand answer to the question of what makes the two days of observance unique is that Veterans Day is dedicated to the celebration of all veterans of the armed services, while Memorial Day is dedicated to those that have died while serving. The first gives everyone a chance to give thanks to those still with us, the second a chance to remember those that are not.

Congress established Veterans Day as a national holiday in 1954 and Memorial Day in 1971, but the ceremonies and traditions that led to Memorial Day reach back farther into our history than Veterans Day. 

Memorial Day began in the years that followed the devastation and horror of the Civil War. In many locations, both in the North and the South, veterans, survivors and supporters gathered at cemeteries and battlefields to pay respect to those that were lost in the conflict. The first semiofficial observance took place in Waterloo, New York in 1868, but it would take decades for the reunited nation to truly come together and make it a national day of remembrance. Many states that were a part of the Confederacy refused to participate, and it was not until after the end of the First World War that the movement gained universal acceptance. 

Like Memorial Day, Veterans Day has its roots in the aftermath of war. Veterans Day falls on November 11 each year, which was the anniversary of the end of hostilities in World War I, which went into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The holiday began as Armistice Day and was a day to honor the 117,000 members of the U.S. military that died in the war. Although the First World War was labelled “The War to End All Wars,” humanity soon faced an even greater threat to its continued existence. Following the conclusion of the Second World War, Congress changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day and expanded the scope of the holiday to include veterans of all American conflicts. 

The elements that make the holidays separate and unique may be subtle, but they are important to remember. While it is always a good gesture to thank a veteran for their service, this Memorial Day, try to find a few moments to reflect on the sacrifices made by every generation of Americans that took up the call of service. For those that fell during the American Revolution and for those that gave their lives in Afghanistan, it is the nation’s solemn duty to ensure their memory never fades.

For more information:

The History of Memorial Day - http://www.moaablogs.org/battleofthebilge/2014/05/memorial_day/

The History of Veterans Day - http://www.moaablogs.org/battleofthebilge/2014/10/veterans-day-history/