Sure, Memorial Day can be great for snagging some awesome sale items, but the day carries much more significance than that. Meant as a day to honor those who have died during active military duty, 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.
That said, some veterans do like to feel the love on this federal holiday — it's a formal day to honor their late comrades who served with them, after all — and it's only natural to want to acknowledge their service and your appreciation in some way. Military personnel are often applauded when they’re seen outside wearing their uniforms or fatigues, especially on holidays such as Veteran's Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day. If you see retired veterans sporting signage touting where they served (i.e. “Proud Vietnam Veteran”), it’s probably safe to try to connect with them. If you’re tongue-tied as to what to say to a veteran on Memorial Day, though, these ideas can help.
“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?”
History can have a funny way of fading away over time, and there’s no greater 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.
“I/my spouse/father/friend/brother/sister/cousin 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.
Edit note: This post has been updated from a previous version.