We often hear of Memorial Day (Last Monday in May) and everyone knows of Veterans Day (Nov. 11). There are two military holidays in May: Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day. The first is a celebration and honor to those still in uniform, created Aug. 31, 1949, by President Truman, recognizing the five branches of the military (Now six—can’t forget Space Force). The latter is more well known in small villages and towns like Patchogue. To many who never served, or don’t really understand what Memorial Day is about, it has become a day to have off work, in many cases barbecue with family and friends, and during normal times maybe catch a parade. But what are these days and what do they mean to those that have donned the uniform?
Once known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day, which is observed on the last Monday in May, has no real moment in time when it started. Originally it was a day in communities when families and community members of fallen soldiers after the Civil War would tend to and decorate the graves to remember them, though there are those that can mark these occasions back to following the Revolutionary War. In the 1880s, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) put out the first literature on the traditions of Memorial Day, which at the time was celebrated on various days throughout the country.
It was first called Memorial Day in 1882; however, it was following World War II that Memorial Day became a more acceptable phrase for the observance than Decoration Day. In 1967, Congress would make Memorial Day the official name by federal law, and not until 1971 that it was changed to be celebrated on the last Monday of the month of May. All of this was much to the objection of GAR in the early 1900s, who felt changes like this to make it a three-day weekend or around large celebrations would lose meaning to younger people, who would see it as a holiday and not a remembrance. Which may explain part of the reason it took so long to make this a federal holiday.
The tradition can be found in many cultures around the world and is heavily respected in Europe, where communities still mass gather in areas that have graves honoring American veterans. Most well known is the over 9,000 graves in the Normandy American Cemetery in France, located near Colleville-sur-Mer, France, which houses these fallen soldiers, most of whom were killed during D-Day landings. Their most famous resident is Theodore Roosevelt Jr. – the son of President Theodore Roosevelt.
While there are some communities that still hold this tradition and many people will gather at the national cemeteries for their Memorial Day observations, in small towns across the country this task is mainly taken up by veteran organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, American veterans and other VSOs, as well as active-duty military personnel and various other organizations who assist, like the Scouts, ROTC cadets, and other civic organizations.
On the Saturday before or a day designated by their local leaders, these organizations gather to place flags on the graves of the fallen men and women who died protecting this country. As Veterans Service Organizations (VSO) have dealt with a lot of loss over the years to those in many cases dying from injuries and illnesses they have brough home from war, this also marks a time where these organization have joined together in service to call out the names of those lost over the last year, as a way to honor those that have continued to fight the battles and service the communities after they returned home.
You will notice above that the word “observed” and not “celebrated” was used to describe Memorial Day. Many will say “Thank you for your service,” or “We gather for this Memorial Day Celebration”; however, this is not Veterans Day, and we are not really celebrating, we are observing and reflecting on those that paid the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we hold dear. While it is always appropriate to thank those that served, please also take time to honor those that are no longer with us.
Rogers is a 14-Year Army combat veteran and past commander of VFW Post 2913