Monday is Memorial Day, a holiday celebrated throughout the United States with barbecues, music festivals, and children running through sprinklers. All those traditions are wonderful. But my husband, a veteran, has one request: Don't treat Memorial Day as a day to honor our troops currently serving in the military. It's not a day for them. As the word "Memorial" tells us, it's a day for remembering and honoring those who sacrificed their lives in battle and are no longer among us.

Why does it matter? I hadn't thought about this myself until I was watching TV with my husband, Bill, a Vietnam veteran. A message from the station told viewers to "Celebrate our troops on Memorial Day," and his reaction was loud and negative. "I hate it when people treat Memorial Day the same as Veteran's Day, as a day for supporting our troops," he said.

My Inc.com colleague Bill Murphy has provided a great guide to understanding the difference between Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. Consider the history of the respective holidays. Veteran's Day, formerly called Armistice Day, commemorates the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, that officially ended World War I. That war was optimistically called "the war to end all wars," a name that turned out to be sadly inaccurate. Veteran's Day is also a day to thank and honor those who have served in our military. If you see Bill on November 11, please feel free to thank him for his service, he says.

Decoration Day.

Memorial Day is a different matter. It dates back to the Civil War, in which an unimaginable 620,000 soldiers were killed. For perspective, that's about 19,000 more people than live in Baltimore today, a death toll huge enough to force the creation of national cemeteries. The holiday used to be called Decoration Day because many people would spend the day placing decorations and flags on the graves of fallen soldiers. The name was changed in 1971, perhaps because so many of the fallen in Bill's war, the Vietnam war, could not be brought home, and have no graves to decorate.

When I asked Bill why people honoring living soldiers and veterans on Memorial Day bothers him so much, his answer was: Because of the Wall, the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., where the names of the 58,220 soldiers who died in that war are engraved in a long and heartbreaking list. 

"I knew so many of those people," he said. "Kids I went to high school with. Kids who just wanted to go to college. Kids who didn't make it to 20." He didn't say it, but he didn't have to: Bill's name could easily be on that wall, if he'd been unlucky instead of lucky.

All those men, and some women too, who died in Vietnam and every war before and since, didn't get the chance to bring up their children, or grow old with their spouses, or have careers. All they have is their names on the Wall, or another memorial like it, and a triangular folded flag for their families.

So go ahead and thank our veterans and support our troops on every other day. Save Memorial Day for remembering and honoring those who never had the chance to become veterans. This one day a year is all they and their loved ones have left.

Published on: May 24, 2018
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