"I hope you're having a meaningful day."
That might be one of the better things to say to a veteran this Monday. You should probably avoid the common refrain, "Thank you for your service," according to someone who should know.
"On Memorial Day, the veteran you're talking to may be going through a bit of melancholy remembering people who died over the years," says Navy veteran Luke Visconti, who also co-founded the website DiversityInc, which wrote about the subject recently.
As most people are aware (or should be), Memorial Day and Veterans Day serve different purposes.
Veterans Day is to honor the service of people who have worn the uniforms of the armed forces.
Memorial Day is intended to remember those who died while serving.
Visconti encourages those who want to say supportive words to a veteran to recognize "that the person may have friends who died in combat."
As far as saying thank you goes, "I don't need to be thanked for my service," he tells NPR's Michel Martin. "I think it's become kind of a platitude, toss-away thing to say."
Memorial Day and Veterans Day have separate origins going back to two different wars: the Civil War and World War I.
Shortly after the Civil War, Memorial Day began as Decoration Day. "The reason for that is because it was a day on which Americans, South and in the North, would decorate the graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War," history professor Matthew Dennis told NPR in 2005. It was a "vernacular, grassroots kind of expression of mourning."
Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who headed a group for Union veterans, declared in 1868 that Decoration Day would be observed on May 30. According to a Memorial Day history from the Department of Veterans Affairs, after World War I the holiday was broadened to include service members who died in all of the country's wars, not just the Civil War.
Multiple cities claim to be the birthplace of the holiday, but President Lyndon Johnson formally gave the honor to Waterloo, N.Y., in 1966. An act of Congress in 1971 switched the observance to the last Monday in May, the VA notes.
Veterans Day, on the other hand, was originally called Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of fighting in World War I — you may have heard before that it happened on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918.
President Woodrow Wilson celebrated the first Armistice Day in 1919. In 1938, November 11 became a legal holiday by an act of Congress, and in 1954 it was changed from "Armistice" to "Veterans" Day, in order to honor all veterans.
So save the thanks for Veterans Day, if you must. "I think sometimes maybe just a pat on the back or an arm around the shoulder is really better than words," Visconti says. "So just be a friend."
NPR radio producer Dustin DeSoto and editor Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now it's time for our regular feature Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand some of the stories we'll be hearing more about in the coming days by parsing some of the words connected to the story. For today's words, we were thinking about Memorial Day. For a lot of us, it's the unofficial start of summer when the swimming pools open and the barbecue grills get dusted off. But Memorial Day is actually meant to be a day of reflection. And for those who serve in the military, for many veterans, for those who love them, even well-intentioned efforts to honor that military service can sometimes feel like a poke in the eye.
We were reminded of this because of a piece we saw in DiversityInc. DiversityInc is an online publication that offers news and tools about how to function in a diverse environment. The piece is titled "What It Means: Why It's Not 'Veterans Day' And How To Approach Your Veterans." We called Luke Visconti for this. He's the co-founder of DiversityInc. And maybe we should call this words you shouldn't hear on Memorial Day. And we are also reminded that Luke Visconti is a Navy veteran himself. And he joined us from his home office in Princeton.
Luke, thanks so much for speaking with us.
LUKE VISCONTI: Good to be here.
MARTIN: So go right there. What does Memorial Day mean and why isn't it Veterans Day? And why is it not the day to say thank you to a veteran?
VISCONTI: Well, Memorial Day started off as Decoration Day and a way to remember Civil War vets who had died in service. So it was decorating tombstones basically, and it evolved to be Memorial Day. And it's a day to remember people who have been killed while serving.
MARTIN: So why is it that - in fact, we often see this on social media that when people approach people and say, you know, thank you for your service - why do some veterans find that annoying and possibly even upsetting?
VISCONTI: Well, you know, I don't like it myself. I volunteered to serve. I flew helicopters in the Navy. It was a dangerous job. I had eight friends get killed over the years I was on active duty. And I enjoyed it immensely. It was very fulfilling. I'd do it again if I had the chance, but I don't need to be thanked for my service. And I think it's become kind of a platitude, toss-away thing to say. And it's a little annoying, frankly.
I know though that most people have nothing but the best intentions, so it's not like it's upsetting or anything. But on Memorial Day, you're - the veteran you're talking to may be going through a bit of melancholy remembering people who died over the years. So it's a good idea, when you're approaching a veteran, to say, it's Memorial Day, and I hope you're having a meaningful day, and I'm - you know, something to that effect where you're recognizing that the person may have friends who died in combat.
MARTIN: Are there any other things you, frankly, should not say? And, I mean, is it - do you recommend that people just simply not approach someone at all - I mean, if somebody knows that you're a veteran or if you're - perhaps if somebody's in uniform? I mean, be honest, would you really prefer that people say nothing?
VISCONTI: Frankly, yes, I mean, unless it's another veteran. I think veterans - and, you know, and I know who my friends who are veterans are, my colleagues, people I know who are veterans. And I would, if I were with them, say something.
MARTIN: Well, but for others who are hearing our conversation and are saying to themselves, you know, gee, I just want to be supportive, I just want to acknowledge that I realize this is a difficult job, you would say what?
VISCONTI: Have a meaningful day. And I'm thinking of you, and I'm thinking of our service people, especially those who died. And I think that that's a nice thing to say. I'm not sure that you need to share, but if you need to share, I think sometimes maybe just a pat on the back or an arm around the shoulder is really better than words. So you know, just be a friend.
MARTIN: That's Luke Visconti. He is the co-founder of DiversityInc. That's an online publication that offers news and resources to help people better function in a diverse environment. And he is a Navy veteran.
Luke Visconti, thank you so much for speaking with us today. And we do hope that you have a meaningful weekend.
VISCONTI: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.