Memorial Day: What It Means, Why It’s Not ‘Veterans Day’ and How to Approach Your Veterans

Memorial Day is not the day to say “Thank you” to a veteran — here’s how to handle what may be a very difficult day for some veterans.


On Memorial Day, many well-intentioned people take time to tell the veterans in their lives, “Thank you for your service.”

This common misconception, that Memorial Day is a time to thank veterans, is not in fact what the holiday is intended for.

“Memorial Day is essentially the one day that we should remember all veterans that are no longer with us, whether that is from combat, everyday accidents or just the natural course of life with people dying of old age,” said Chris Wilson, VP of major accounts at DiversityInc. “You ‘memorialize’ those that decided to sign a contract to be a part of something that would help the American people by joining the American military.”

For many Americans, Memorial Day is “the unofficial start of summer,” a day off of work and the perfect day for a barbecue. But for some veterans, Chris explained, Memorial Day could in fact be a very difficult day. Rather than being a day to thank living veterans for their service, Memorial Day is a day to remember veterans who are no long with us, whether they died in combat or not.

Chris served active duty in the United States Marine Corps from 2007 to 2012 as an Infantry Officer, serving deployments to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011. He did lose friends in combat. And for veterans, Memorial Day could be similar to the first holiday you celebrate after losing a loved one.

“We often hear that when people pass, the first ‘holiday’ season is very hard because they are not at the dinner table or opening presents,” Chris said. “The first couple of Memorial Days out of active duty service can be the same.”

This is not to say that all veterans will have a difficult day. Some veterans will be fine that weekend, perhaps if they were not traumatized by combat or did not experience death firsthand.

But for others, Memorial Day could bring a flood of painful memories.

“Companies need to recognize that other veterans may have memories of combat, almost dying, buddies dying, killing people, and so many other things can erupt during this weekend of emotions,” Chris said.

For some years, Memorial Day was more difficult than others, Chris recalled. 2014 was particularly difficult. That was one of the years Chris decided to visit Arlington National Cemetery, where Marines who Chris lost during combat are buried.

“I made the trip to Arlington over Memorial Day but at this point I had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So my emotions were taking over how I could act around others,” Chris said. “The day before I went to Arlington, my father-in-law asked me if I was going to see the families. A wave of emotion hit me, and I couldn’t talk, but only cry. Then on the trip down there, I had an anxiety attack.”

That year, Chris sought therapy for his PTSD — a decision that made a world of a difference.

“Memorial Day in 2015 and those afterward have been totally fine — only because I went to therapy,” Chris said.

Rather than approaching your veterans and saying, “Thank you for your service,” “Is this a difficult weekend for you?” or “How many friends did you lose on your deployments?” Chris suggests saying something along the lines of:

“Enjoy your weekend, but I want you to know that I will be remembering what this holiday is about.”
“Enjoy your weekend, and I will be thinking about those that are no longer with us.”
“I will be taking a moment this weekend to honor those that served our nation and are no longer with us.”

If you are or know of a loved one who is struggling during this time or any other time, now is when to seek help.

“My door is always open for anyone that wants to talk about my experiences and how I was able to become 100% healthy from my PTSD. I want our client base to understand.” — Chris Wilson

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  • Romell Cummings

    Memorial Day has nothing to do with honoring veterans. Memorial Day is about honoring Blacks that were killed in the Civil War, and buried in a mass grave. On May 1, 1865, former Black slaves started Memorial Day in America. This occurred in Charleston, SC to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. Together with teachers and missionaries, Black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony that year which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers.

  • This is a timely article and I think it will help many who want to say or do something, but are unsure. Another comment to make when unsure might be “it is good we take one day out of the year as a country to honor our fallen soldiers” or “I often pray for our brothers and sisters who have served and are gone” or “It is with deep love and respect that I take time to remember our countrymen and women who served …”

    • Jewl – well said.
      Luke – thank you for article addressing the differences between Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day and how hard it might be on those who served and are remembering their fallen comrades.

      • It is a melancholy day for me. Although I did not fly in a war, seven men I knew died in accidents that also claimed another 28 lives. Flying helicopters is dangerous.

  • Luke, thank you for this article. It’s become too easy for many to think of Memorial Day as a day for cooking out and traveling and all though I will be partaking in those activities myself, I will also spend time placing flags on grave sites of the fallen and deceased including my father. One thing of note – Regarding African Americans founded Decoration Day at the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course”. Many of the Black men that organized and constructed the ideal, fencing and services for the deceased prisoners that were mostly Black (and some Whites) were Prince Hall Masons.

    • Charity Dell

      ANDY–Thanks for the information about the connection to Prince Hall Masons.

  • Alison Shirley Perrin

    Does this apply to the veterans from the VFW collecting money outside the grocery store? Should I just give money and say nothing? The other options you list don’t seem appropriate for this situation. Thank you for the info

    • “Thank you for doing this.”

      “I appreciate your volunteer work.”

      “Have a nice day.”

      Just be yourself. You obviously care, that will come through.

  • Memorial Day has everything to do with honoring our veterans. We should never forget the brave people who have paid with there lives and those who stand by today to proudly do the same if needed. History should always be studied so we don’t repeat it but the day today is for the fallen and those who or have served. My grandfather was at Iwo Jima stationed on a LST and for the most part didn’t talk much about that day. I remember a talk we had about that day. I was home on leave and he opened up a bit. He was so proud to see me in the same uniform he had during the war. We looked over pics and I seen one of the flag at Iwo Jima. I asked where he got it and he said I was there. I remember that day well not one marine on our ship made it to the beach that day. I didn’t say much but being a navy man myself I knew about how many that was. A LST is what we call a gator freighter and has around 1000 marines on board. This means that about 1000 men gave their lives that day from one ship. The first medal awarded in WWII was to a navy man. He was an African American cook at Pearl Harbor.

    It’s the soldier not the reporter who give you the freedom of the press.

    It’s the soldier not the poet that give you the freedom of speech.

    It’s the soldier not not the campus organizer who allows you to demonstrate.

    It’s the soldier who salutes the flag, serves the flag, whose coffin is draped with the flag that allows the protesters to burn the flag.

    This is a day to give them thanks. The funny thing is most don’t need It and will serve proudly without it.

    God bless them all fallen and serving.

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