Memorial Day, Veterans Day…what are they all about?

I’ve asked myself this question before, but it came to mind again earlier this month, when Billy Collins made the following claim: a day devoted to something is a sign of neglect of that something.*

I had been mulling this over for a week or two when, browsing social media or some other corner of the internet, it was brought to my attention that Saturday, May 16, 2020 was Armed Forces Day. While I probably get surprised by this every year (and promptly forget), it was in the context of Billy’s words that got me thinking, maybe he’s right.

And, what can we do about that?

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As some of you know, I recently finished watching the 2001 HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers, for the first time (not least of all because it features actors that went on to star in some of my favorite TV shows — Once Upon a Time, Supernatural, Friends & ER, to name a few). If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it — as both a historical record and, dare I say, a cinematic work of art — but it’s certainly not for the fainthearted. It tells a story, for sure, but it is gory. However, I think we need to be shocked like this, sometimes, for the sacrifices of our servicemen and women to really sink in.

Read “Why ‘Band of Brothers’ is still good…” on Business Insider

It is for similar reasons that I think more people (especially people in their late 20s and younger) need to take the time to reflect on why we have holidays like Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day: If we think only about what we get out of something, be it a Hollywood movie or a national holiday, we don’t really deserve it. If we don’t know or comprehend the significance of the history behind such things, we have failed our fellow Americans.

And as we all know, those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.

Veterans Memorial
My husband and I stopped by the Veteran’s Wall of Honor in front of the new WPD building on Armed Forces Day, 2020. No one else was there at about 4 p.m.

Not wanting to be one of those people this year, I decided to do some research this week on Memorial Day, for one, since it’s probably the most-celebrated military holiday (not because most Americans go to memorial services on this day, but because it’s the first long weekend to kick off the summer — we’ll come back to that). I suppose I should also mention that my formal education in U.S. history was embarrassingly poor, and I hope whoever is reading this can boast a better background than mine, in this regard. In any case, here are some things I learned:

  • Memorial Day started as a way to honor those killed in combat during the Civil War (source)
  • It was initially known as Decoration Day, and occurred on May 30 every year until 1971, when it changed to the last Monday in May (source)
  • Some sources credit the tradition to a group of freed slaves, but the U.S. VA website makes no mention of this (possibly just for verification reasons) (source)
  • Some states celebrate “Confederate Memorial Day,” which I find somewhat disturbing, and… (source)
  • Some veterans want the holiday to return to Saturdays so more people would recognize it for what it is, and not just the opportunity for a quick vacation (source)

While we could go into a long discussion about points three and four, this last one is the one I’ve been thinking about most, especially in the context of Billy’s words. Would moving it to Saturdays really make people pay more attention to “the reason for the season,” as it were? Or would it just give people more opportunity to forget? Armed Forces Day always falls on a Saturday, and I thought they’d like to have it on a Monday, so our current servicemen and women could actually enjoy a workday off!

Maybe you’d like to weigh in on the matter of dates?

Meanwhile, I’d like to talk personal connections…

Great Uncle Charles
My dad’s uncle Charles (for whom he was named) is the one standing in the front directly under the right propeller. This picture was most likely taken in 1945.

As I’ve been researching military holidays and consuming fictionalized representations of war — in addition to watching Brothers, I’ve been reading Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand about the Olympic miler turned bombardier, Louie Zamperini, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, a classic piece of wartime satire recently decried by our local school board as “inappropriate” reading material — I thought I should dive into my family history as well.

I don’t have any relatives (that I know of) who died in any war, but my mom’s grandpa served in WWII and both my maternal and paternal grandfathers served as enlisted men in Korea and officers in Vietnam.

My dad also served and rode submarines in the Navy during the early ’70s, my uncle Jeff enlisted in the Navy not long after that, my uncle Lynn Marshall did two tours in Vietnam with the Navy, and my brother-in-law is currently in the Air Force reserves, but I’ve never felt like my family’s military history really had any effect on me or my life. And maybe it hasn’t, directly, but I’m glad I took the time to look into who my grandfathers really were.

Gordon Tully
My mom’s grandpa, Gordon Tully, 1941

I never met my maternal grandfather, and when my paternal grandfather died in 2009, I was in high school and about as disinterested in history or the military as I had ever been. I don’t think I ever thought about asking him what he did in the military, and of course now I wish I had, but if we could turn back time, I know I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I was just in a vastly different head space back then.

Thankfully, my dad doesn’t throw anything away, and was tasked with organizing my grandpa’s affairs after his death. Because of this, I can catch a glimpse of my family’s history and begin to grasp the significance of my family members’ service.

(Incidentally, I also rediscovered my grandpa’s great hair and singing voice while browsing old photos, but that’s perhaps a subject for another blog post…)

In my short time at the Frontiersman, I think I contributed my fair share of veteran and Memorial Day pieces (see here, here, here and here, for example), but I think it takes a lot more than a feel-good feature or two (or three or four) to really understand what military “service” means in this country. I don’t claim to know much about the military in any country, nor do I think I have yet developed a complete understanding of our nation’s history, but I hope I can encourage people to keep learning with me. More than that, I hope to see people continue to create art from their experiences, be they wartime or otherwise.

And if you take nothing else from this post, at least remember:

  • Armed Forces Day occurs on the third Saturday in May, to honor the people currently serving in our military.
  • Memorial Day occurs on the last Monday in May, to honor the soldiers who died in battle, or as a result of their wounds sustained in battle.
  • Veterans Day occurs on November 11, to honor the people who have served, but are not currently serving in our military.

What do these holidays mean to you?

* Billy made this comment during one of his many live “broadcasts” on Facebook, most of which are removed from his page the following week. I believe the comment was made during the Mother’s Day episode on May 10, 2020.

2 thoughts on “Memorial Day, Veterans Day…what are they all about?”

  1. Good article/essay. Collins’ quote on that is one I have heard before, thought-provoking and worth repeating on many occasions.


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