The Difference Between Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day and Memorial Day

By Rachel Christian

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Memorial Day celebration in 1923.
Memorial Day, 1923. Source: Library of Congress

What is the difference between Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day, and why are they both in May? How are each of these observances different from Veterans Day? Here’s how these special holidays differ, and the unique individuals each is meant to honor.

Armed Forces Day

Who: All who currently serve and all who have served, both active and former, in the reserves, National Guard or on active duty, including the Coast Guard.

When: The third Saturday in May.

What: Armed Forces Day was created in 1949 by the Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson. It replaced separate days that honored various branches of the military (Army, Air Force and Navy) and was intended to “expand public understanding of what type of job is performed and the role of the military in civilian life.” Armed Forces Day is celebrated with parades, displaying the flag and often by volunteering or making donations.

Veterans Day

Who: All those who have served in the military.

When: Celebrated annually on November 11th.

What: Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It coincides with similar observances in Great Britain, Australia and Canada that all commemorate the armistice that went into effect on November 11th, 1918, ending the fighting between the Allies and Germany. In the US, Veterans Day specifically honors all former members of the US military.

Memorial Day

Who: All who died in military service.

When: The last Monday in May.

What: Memorial Day was first known as Decoration Day. It emerged several years after the end of the Civil War as a springtime celebration when the graves of the war dead would be decorated with flowers. Today, it is celebrated annually on the last Monday in May to honor those who gave their lives in service.

Last updated: November 2021

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