Service & sacrifice: May holidays celebrate current service members, honor nation’s fallen

  • Published
  • By Max Maxfield, PSNS & IMF Public Affairs

It is not uncommon to hear Americans thanking veterans for their service. These sentiments are expressed particularly often during patriotic and/or military-centric holidays. While the gratitude of the citizenry is appreciated by most veterans, it is important to remember these are distinctly different holidays, with different meanings.

People wishing to express gratitude for the service and sacrifices others have made for them can best show gratitude by ensuring the correct group of people is being honored each holiday.

Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day are two of the three major military-centric holidays observed in the U.S. Both are celebrated in May and, along with Veterans Day on Nov. 11, give Americans a way to thank current service members and honor those who have paid the ultimate price in service to the nation.


President Harry S. Truman led the effort to establish a single holiday for citizens to come together and thank the nation’s actively serving military members for their patriotic service. Aug. 31, 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day to replace separate Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Days.

President John F. Kennedy officially made Armed Forces a national holiday in 1961. Armed Forces Day is celebrated on the third Saturday of every May, with this year’s observance falling on May 20.


The origins of Memorial Day are clouded in history, with several places claiming to have originated the holiday. In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, second commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30, as Decoration Day to decorate the graves of Union soldiers who died during the Civil War. Cities throughout the former Confederacy were also honoring fallen service members.

After World War II, the name Memorial Day, which was first attested in 1882, gradually became more common than Decoration Day. However, the name Memorial Day was not declared the official holiday name by federal law until 1967.

June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.

On Memorial Day, all U.S. flags should be displayed at half-staff during the morning hours. At noon, they should be raised back to full-staff. The Veterans of Foreign Wars recommends attending commemorative ceremonies as a visible way of demonstrating remembrance. Placing flags at military gravesites, marching in parades, sponsoring patriotic programs, dedicating memorials and wearing Buddy Poppies are other ways to honor the nation's war dead, preserve their memory, and thus their service and sacrifice.