More than just cookouts and pool parties: What Memorial Day really means

To many Americans, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer; synonymous with cookouts, mattress sales, and trips to the beach; but what does Memorial Day actually represent, why do we celebrate, and who do we honor?

I sat down with several active duty and retired members of the US military to talk about the history of Memorial Day, what it means to them, and how they celebrate.

What is the background and history of Memorial Day?

According to, Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day and originated in the years following the US Civil War as various towns began hosting tributes to the fallen soldiers. Many local communities participated in decorating graves with flags, wreathes or flowers. On the first official Decoration Day, 5,000 participants decorated the graves of over 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery. After the start of World War I, Decoration day evolved into Memorial Day and grew to include those whose lives were lost during this newer conflict. We now honor and remember all military personnel who died at war including the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,

Who do we celebrate?

On Memorial Day we pay tribute to the over 1 million service members who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country. This holiday remembers and honors those who paid the ultimate price for freedom and gave their lives in order to protect our liberties.

According to a senior noncommissioned officer stationed at Dyess AFB in Texas, “Since the civil war, there has not been a generation of Americans that has not seen conflict or been called upon to protect and defend the way of life we hold dear. Their sacrifice is a testament to the American spirit that has been tested in conflicts across the world. The Air Force community often highlights heroes, like Airman First Class William Pitsenbarger and Technical Sergeant John Chapman, who received Medals of Honor for their sacrifices. But the day is about more than just the extraordinary heroes, it is about each soldier, sailor, airman, and marine that fought and died to ensure we can continuously grow the American dream and live up to the founding father’s vision for a more perfect union”.

Retired Air Force Colonel Barry Wingard says “Memorial Day is a day to reflect on the soldiers who have given their lives to fight for our freedom and liberty.”

How should you properly observe this holiday?

While this is a serious and somber occasion, it’s ok to take advantage of this holiday and celebrate with things like pool parties and family barbeques, as long as you don’t forget the true meaning of the day.  “There’s no right or wrong way to celebrate,” says one active duty member “but just remember the reason we have these freedoms. Try to take a few moments out of your long weekend to reflect on the sacrifices made that afforded us the American way of life. These men and women asked for nothing and gave everything. We honor them by enjoying the country we all hold so dear and celebrating our freedoms that they fought so hard to protect”.
Many Americans attend parades that often incorporate military personnel and veterans, or visit cemeteries or memorials. Erik Hood, a veteran from Pittsburgh, joined the Army in 2006 and spent 15 months in Iraq where 26 soldiers in his battalion were killed in action. When discussing how he celebrates he mentioned, “I’ve remembered Memorial Day since I was a toddler watching the parade in Lawrenceville with my dad. That was always important to me watching the veterans of prior wars be honored in the parade.”

What’s the difference between Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Armed Forces Day?

As a civilian, many of these holidays can easily become mixed up. But there are differences in who and what we celebrate and why. As was mentioned earlier, Memorial Day pays tribute to those who gave up their lives for their country. The men and women we honor on this day are unfortunately here for us to thank but we can still show honor them by doing things like placing flags or flowers on memorials and assisting in cemetery cleanups.
“Veterans Day celebrates those who have served previously, and Armed Forces Day celebrates those still serving.” says an active duty member.

What does it mean to you?

So what does memorial day mean to the military? Col. Wingard, who spent 15 years in the army before earning his Juris Doctor Degree and joining the US Air Force says, “When putting American flags on the graves of fallen soldiers to commemorate their sacrifice, I’m always reminded that a lot of us gave some, but we can never forget that some of us gave all.”  Hood added, “I joined during a time of war, like the majority of volunteers do, which will hopefully provide a better and safer future for our children. I will sacrifice for them a hundred times over.”
Veterans and active duty military aren’t the only ones who are deeply effected by the holiday. Family members and friends of those who never made it home also use this as a time to remember their loved ones and the sacrifices they made. Storage Mall President, Pat Bailey’s father fought and was wounded in Vietnam. “He served in the US Marine Corps and was very proud of his service…I asked him before he died if he regretted serving. He said no, and he would do it all over again if he could.”

Anything Else we should know?

If you are looking for additional ways to honor the fallen, you can pause for a moment of silence at 3PM on Memorial Day to observe the National Moment of Remembrance. You can also make a financial donation to organizations like,, or

No matter how you celebrate, don’t forget the meaning behind the holiday and the reason we are able to enjoy the freedoms afforded us. By honoring these brave men and women every year we can do our part to ensure that their legacy and stories continue to live on for generations to come.

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