Today is Memorial Day, a day that is intended to be set aside for the nation to honor those who died while serving the country in the armed forces.
Millions see the holiday as an unofficial kick-off for the summer and will hold barbecues, go boating, host picnics and family gatherings and enjoy other lighthearted activities. Others will visit the graves of loved ones who, in the words of Lincoln, “gave their last full measure of devotion” to the preservation of the U.S. and the liberties we so cherish as Americans.
That so many use the holiday to party and give no more than a passing thought to the sacrifice of the fallen would probably not cause too great an offense to those whose last breath was in uniform, for the freedom to do so was what impelled so many to take up arms to begin with.
However, we, as a nation, owe it to our military and the men and women who have — or who now are — wearing the uniform to at least understand what the three chief holidays set aside to honor those patriots actually stand for.
Memorial Day began being unofficially observed after the conclusion of the American Civil War, in which roughly 2 percent of all Americans slaughtered each other on American soil — the equivalent of 6 million dead if fought today — in order to more clearly define the meaning of freedom and the relations of liberty to property.
Long known as Decoration Day from the practice of placing of flowers and momentos on graves, the Uniform Holiday Act of 1971 established the final Monday in May as Memorial Day.
It is not to be confused with Veterans Day, which was originally observe on Nov. 11 and marked the official end of fighting in World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The holiday was originally referred to as Armistice Day, a name it retains today in Europe.
The November holiday was renamed Veterans Day in 1954. The Department of Veterans Affairs does not use an apostrophe in the spelling, saying the day is for honoring veterans and does not belong to them.
Between 1971 and 1977, Veterans Day was observed on the fourth Monday of October, but in 1978 Congress returned the holiday to Nov. 11.
There is a third, far less well known or recognized military day in the U.S. called Armed Forces Day. Not a federal holiday, it is observed on the third Saturday of May and dates from its first celebration in 1950.
These distinctions, often erroneously blurred, are a start on the path toward honoring our American soldiery. Memorial Day honors those who died in the service of the U.S., and Veterans Day honors those who previously served. Armed Forces Day salutes those who currently serve in the defense of our liberties.
We do all proud by not confusing the meaning of the three.