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Celebrating Armed Forces Day

Friday, May 18th, 2012

By Mike Labutta

Tomorrow, Saturday May 19, marks the 62nd celebration of Armed Forces Day in America.

When the separate branches of the armed forces were all brought under the command of the Department of Defense in 1949, then-Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day as a way to mark the unification. In 1950, President Truman established it as a national day of observance, and it has served ever since as an occasion for Americans to recognize those in our military for the faithful service that they render on our behalf.

In his 1950 proclamation, President Truman exhorted military commanders, civil authorities, and private citizens to make the day more than just an occasion for passive reflection:

I call upon my fellow citizens to display the flag of the United States at their homes on Armed Forces Day and to participate in exercises expressive of our recognition of the skill, gallantry, and uncompromising devotion to duty characteristic of the Armed Forces in the carrying out of their missions.

Every President since Truman has continued this precedent, designating the third Saturday in May as Armed Forces Day, and each President has affirmed the importance of actively recognizing our service members in local ceremonies and observances. As President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1953, “It is fitting and proper that we devote one day each year to paying special tribute to those whose constancy and courage constitute one of the bulwarks guarding the freedom of this nation and the peace of the free world.”

In preparation for tomorrow’s observance, we’d like to highlight a recent public awards ceremony for Army Rangers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, following the regiment’s 14th combat deployment in the global war on terrorism.

The commander of the 2/75th Ranger Regiment noted the significance of public participation in the ceremony:

Lt. Col. David Hodne, 2/75th Rangers commander, said the openness of the ceremony was a reminder that though Ranger operational missions are shrouded in security, it’s important to touch base with a public that might know the legend of the Army Ranger, yet never have the opportunity to shake his hand.

“After now more than 10 years of war, for families to celebrate amongst themselves–to do this in isolation–they’ve done that for years,” he said. “Over time it’s difficult to continue when you think you’re alone in your effort in fighting the war. These men get up every day and do the hard jobs–without complaint.”

At the ceremony, Staff Sergeant Sean Keough was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest combat decoration. During a mission in Afghanistan last fall, he earned the award when he positioned himself between a wounded teammate and withering enemy fire so that others could extricate their wounded teammate from the fight. Yet Staff Sergeant Keough described himself as anything but heroic: “I was just in a bad situation and I did my job; that’s what it boils down to,” he said. “Anybody in my unit could have been in the same exact situation as me and did the exact same thing.”

In his proclamation on Armed Forces Day from last year, President Obama encouraged Americans to recognize not only our military’s service to us, but our duty to them:

On Armed Forces Day, let us salute the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who perform their duties with impeccable courage, commitment, and character, and recognize our moral obligation to serve them and their families as well as they have served us.

Just over a week from today, many Americans will observe Memorial Day at a beach, a park, or a backyard barbecue–and in doing so, celebrate little more than their liberation from the office for a day. It’s natural to look forward to Memorial Day–but we shouldn’t look past Armed Forces Day in the meantime.

Sixty-two years since the first Armed Forces Day, Eisenhower’s call to action couldn’t be more appropriate. So tomorrow, let’s all show our appreciation and honor our service members who, like Staff Sergeant Keough, are doing hard jobs without complaint.

Mike Labutta is an intern with the AEI Program on American Citizenship.