Memorial Day

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What To Say To A Veteran On Memorial Day

It can be tough to find the right words.

by Jennifer Parris and Cat Bowen
Originally Published: 

I know it’s hard to believe, but Memorial Day was not actually created for mattress sales, but to honor those who have died during active military duty. And you can say something meaningful to a veteran on Memorial Day to show your appreciation to those who have served in the United States armed forces. But how?

Well, that’s where it can get a bit tricky. It’s important to keep in mind that Memorial Day can be a touchy subject for active duty and retired veterans alike. After all, some might have witnessed life-changing events that traumatized them, and would prefer not to speak about their military experience at all. The day is for remembering the fallen, and it’s likely that the vet in front of you may have seen some of his best buddies lose their lives. That’s why it’s important to be sensitive in how you approach a veteran on this particular day.

Also, consider how you know this veteran. Is it your husband, wife, or partner? Is it your friend, or a family member? The way you discuss Memorial Day with them is far different than an acquaintance or stranger. For my loved ones who have served or are serving, I can gauge when they want to talk about it, and when they’d rather not. That is the most important factor here. Because unlike Veteran’s Day, which is all about thanking them for their service, Memorial Day remembers the dead for their sacrifice, and that can be intense.


“How do you personally spend Memorial Day?”

For many people, Memorial Day is the unofficial start to summer, and is full of BBQs and celebrations. But for those who have served, Memorial Day might be spent in other ways, such as going to places of worship or visiting a cemetery. Asking how a veteran spends Memorial Day shows a deeper understanding for the holiday beyond hot dogs and burgers. It can also give you a chance to help them celebrate if their usual plans have fallen through.


“What does Memorial Day mean to you?”

If you’re unsure of what to say to a veteran on Memorial Day, a good question to ask is what the holiday means to them. You might get to hear a first-hand story of what life in the military was like back when the veteran served, or you might be told a tale of a fellow soldier (and friend) who tragically fell during combat. And if you ask more than one veteran what Memorial Day symbolizes, you’re sure to hear so many different perspectives, each unique and important.


“Is Memorial Day difficult for you? How so?

Memorial Day can be challenging for veterans, as it is a day that honors the dead. Chances are, the veteran you speak with might have suffered tragic loss, and may or may not be amenable to speaking about their experiences. But by asking this question, you’re showing that you understand the true meaning of the holiday, and acknowledging the potential loss of life that the veteran may have experienced.


“God bless you and all those who have served.”

Depending if the veteran is religious or not, this can be a simple yet sincere way to thank them for their service and sacrifice. It shows humility and compassion while still being a gentle reminder of what the holiday truly means.


“Thank you for your service, and may those you've lost rest in peace."

"Simply thanking a veteran for the sacrifice he made while serving can be enough to make him feel appreciated," Elizabeth Tyrrell, a veteran in the U.S. Army tells Romper, but it's even more important to acknowledge those who have fallen while on duty. It can be a good icebreaker though: If the veteran seems like he wants to open up and share his experiences (as many often do), then try asking additional questions if you're curious about his story. Tread lightly though, as it's bound to be an emotional day for many.


“What would you like people to know?”

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History can have a funny way of fading away over time, and there’s no greater way of bringing it back to life than by hearing it from those who lived — and survived it — first-hand. So if you have questions about what really happened during the Somali Civil War in the ‘90s (and how many U.S. soldiers were killed), take the opportunity of speaking with a veteran to learn more. This gives them the floor to share funny anecdotes, as well as reminisce about how they dealt with tough situations in what are now basically considered historical battles.


“When and where did you serve?’

Some vets will wear memorabilia – either on a jacket, shirt, or a hat – that shows where and when they served in the armed forces. If you’re curious about what it was like being in the Army during the Korean War, for example, find out more. Ask where the veteran was stationed, his rank, and any other tours of duty he might have had.


“Someone I love served, too.”

If you’re unsure of how to approach a veteran, you can always mention that you or your loved one served (or is currently serving) in the armed forces. "It immediately helps you to establish a connection with the vet, which is how honest dialogue and camaraderie can start," Tyrrell adds. They might even start peppering you with questions about your experiences as they relate to the military to get a then vs. now perspective. Remember, it’s kind of a given that older veterans had a tougher time when they served, so they might be fascinated to hear about the new weaponry, tactics, and advances in technology that the modern military is utilizing.


“What would you change about the military today?”

Chances are, the veteran you’re talking to has a lot of opinions about the overall standing of the United States and its military. Learn about what’s important to veterans by asking them what they like (and don’t like) about the current state of affairs, and what they might want to see handled differently. It just might give you greater insight into how things were — and more importantly, where things are headed in the future.


"Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for being willing to do what needed to be done."

If the veteran is your spouse or partner, telling them you love them on Veteran’s Day, and telling them you’re so grateful that they got to come home might seem silly — and in light of their friends’ sacrifices, might feel glib — but it’s honest. And you have to let them know that you honor their sacrifice as well. Going to war and serving in active duty changes a person. Who they are when they deploy is different from who they are when they come home. Telling them that you honor, respect, and understand that is essential.


"Tell me about who you lost."

Older veterans and those who are closest to you will likely be more willing to talk about those they left behind. Having had this conversation with one of my best friends who served in the Army from 2002 until 2014, I learned that to a service member, honoring the lives of those who were lost by celebrating how they lived was a sacred duty. Were they parents? Were they funny? Did they have a nice smile? What made them enlist? Memories are what we leave behind for the people we love, and it is in those people that we carry on.


"Tell me what you miss."

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Veterans almost always miss something about their time in the service. Whether it’s the camaraderie, the travel, or the MREs (just kidding, I’ve been assured no one misses those), there’s something to miss. But on Memorial Day, don’t be surprised if what they miss are those who didn’t make it home. On Memorial Day, veterans are acutely aware of the friends who passed, making the ultimate sacrifice.


"Who made you laugh the hardest."

I love hearing stories about ridiculous recruits and silly soldiers. Their jobs are so stressful, it seems that every platoon grows a built-in foil. Someone is playing pranks, cracking jokes, and making life bearable. And their fellow soldiers are more than willing to recount their tales.


"What would you tell soldiers today?"

Veterans are treasure troves of untapped guidance. Asking them how they would help this generation of soldiers, seamen, and airmen, allows them to reach into that well and express all they know. Honestly, we should all be asking this of them all of the time, not just on Memorial Day.

It can be hard to know what to say to a veteran on Memorial Day. After all, it’s a day that can bring up a lot of memories for vets — both true and tragic. Having the right words to honor veterans (and those who lost their lives) will ensure that you give them — and the holiday — the respect that the day deserves.

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