It's easy for civilians or those without family in the military to get Veterans Day (observed on November 11) and Memorial Day (observed on the last Monday of May) confused. Both, after all, are federal holidays that recognize military service. That, however, is where the similarity ends.
Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of WWI. It honors all who have served in the military, whether in war or in peacetime. As the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs writes on its website, "Veterans Day is largely intended to thank LIVING veterans for their service."
Memorial Day was established in 1868 by the Grand Army of the Republic — a Civil War veterans organization — as Decoration Day: a day to decorate the graves of the military war dead. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the May date was established to ensure that the flowers would be in bloom. In 1971, Congress made it a national holiday. It is still sometimes referred to as Decoration Day.
Memorial Day is a day of reflection and remembrance for those who sacrificed their lives in combat.
Memorial Day is about those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
While it's always appropriate to be thankful to veterans for their service, Memorial Day is a day that should be set aside to honor those soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who are no longer here to receive that gratitude. It's a day of remembrance and reflection for those who gave their lives, and the families and friends that they left behind.
As John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic wrote on the first Memorial Day in 1868:
"Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the nation's gratitude—the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan."