Armed Forces Day, by one name or another, is celebrated by over thirty nations in the world to honor their past and present military personnel. In the United States it is celebrated on the third Saturday in May; other countries celebrate it on other days. Some communities, especially those close to military bases-Bremerton, Washington and Lawton, Oklahoma are two examples-have embraced Armed Forces Day as a major event, with large parades and other attractions spread out over the weekend, yet nationally it has never reached the level of recognition of “major” holidays like Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Why?
The United States version of Armed Forces Day was created in 1949 by President Harry Truman. Each of the five branches of the military-the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, and the Coast Guard-each had separate days set aside to honor their members, and Armed Forces Day was a way of bringing them all together, just as the commands of the five had just been unified under the Department of Defense.
In most of the country, Armed Forces Day gets little recognition, and in fact it’s likely the majority of Americans have never even heard of it. Why Armed Forces Day has not caught on to a larger degree is an interesting question. Among the probable reasons are these:
1. There are only ten highest level federal holidays where federal workers are given the day off (which then trickles down to the majority of state, local, and private sector workers also getting the day off), and Armed Forces Day isn’t one of them. The ten are New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Washington’s Birthday (also known as Presidents Day), Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.
If a holiday doesn’t get people off work, it’s hard for it to feel like a holiday to most Americans. It’s possible to overcome that disadvantage-Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, some holidays that are specific to certain religions, etc. have pulled it off to some extent-but it’s tough.
So Armed Forces Day is relegated to the level of such holidays as Arbor Day, V-E Day, V-J Day, and Flag Day-below the “main” holidays, though still above (one hopes) the likes of International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day and National Spongecake Day. (Those are on February 23 and August 23, by the way, spaced out so there won’t be too much excitement all at once.)
2. Armed Forces Day occurs in mid to late May (between the 15th and the 21st), which is almost immediately before Memorial Day (which falls between the 25th and 31st of May).
Memorial Day is one of the “big ten” that means an extra day off work, plus it was already well established (under its earlier name “Decoration Day,” it’s been observed since shortly after the Civil War) when Armed Forces Day came around. Armed Forces Day understandably has never been able to get out from under the shadow of Memorial Day.
It doesn’t help that both holidays are military-related. Granted they aren’t the same by any means, since Memorial Day is specifically to honor Americans who’ve died in military service, and Armed Forces Day is for all past and present American servicepersons, but there’s certainly much overlap.
3. Not only does Armed Forces Day overlap to some extent with the already established Memorial Day, it overlaps even more with the already established Veterans Day.
Veterans Day, under its earlier name of Armistice Day, has been around since just after World War I. This is the holiday most Americans associate with honoring military personnel. Thus Armed Forces Day falls prey to the “Don’t we already have one of those?” objection, at least from the minority of people who’ve even heard of it.
4. A factor of lesser importance, but still some, is that the five services still take pride in themselves individually and like to celebrate their own special days. And while none of these five days has become big in the consciousness of the American public as a whole, members of the services themselves are often aware of them, and feel a little more emotional connection with the day for their own branch of the military than with the more general Armed Forces Day.