‘Is it happy?’ Veterans share why they wish people wouldn’t say ‘Happy Memorial Day’

To U.S. Army veteran Ryan Timmermans, Memorial Day is a Monday like any other. He doesn’t need a holiday to remember his friends and colleagues who are no longer here. Thoughts of them still haunt him every day.

In 2012, while he was stationed in Afghanistan, a back injury kept him at the base during a mission. Another soldier went in his stead. Within hours, Timmermans learned that the group had been hit by a roadside bomb. The explosion was so large, it vaporized their vehicle. No one survived.

“I was hollow,” he said, describing the survivor’s guilt that ripped through him. “That was my place to die.”

Memorial Day is on May 27 this year. Timmermans admits he hadn’t clocked that it was coming up. It’s a strange topic for him. He thinks the meaning of the day is widely misunderstood.

“I’ll give you one example: ‘Happy Memorial Day!’” he said, imitating the greeting. “Is it happy?”

Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by Congress in 1971, to be observed annually on the last Monday in May, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Despite this being the holiday’s 53rd year, new survey data from the United Services Automobile Association found that less than half of U.S. adults (46%) understand its meaning.

Ed Martinez, a U.S. Air Force veteran, says that a lot of people don’t recognize the somberness of the day, mixing it up with more celebratory holidays like Veterans Day and Armed Forces Day.

“Sometimes civilians get them confused, sometimes they’ll thank you for your service on Memorial Day,” Martinez said.

While he appreciates the gesture, Martinez says this day is not about him.

“It’s to honor the dead, not the living,” he said.

After his military retirement in 2006, Martinez became commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in O’Fallon, Illinois, and still serves as Honor Guard leader. He takes part in its annual Memorial Day ceremony.

Martinez says there are small things people can do if they want to honor those who are still here, such as appreciating the country they live in. He says this is a gratifying thing to see for vets like him. He also hopes that people will support veterans who are struggling.

“Depending on the conflict, there are more people dying by suicide than in the actual conflict,” he said.

In 2021, research from Brown University found that 30,177 current and former military personnel died by suicide in the 20 years since 9/11, compared to 7,057 who were killed in combat in the same 20 years.

Timmermans was almost one of those. When he got back from Afghanistan, two of his friends took their own lives. He says he was nearly the third.

Timmermans remembers seeking help from the VA in 2013 for his own suicidal ideations. He waited for months just for his appointment to obtain a referral. Then, once he got his referral, he was told there would be another three-month wait to be seen for treatment.

What saved him was a call to return to Afghanistan days later, which he took eagerly. In his words, he needed to get away again and — most importantly — out of his head.

To this day, Timmermans finds solace in staying immersed in work. He is the founder and executive director of Veterans Off-Grid, a New Mexico nonprofit organization that builds sustainable homes for veterans who need housing. To him, this is a continuation of his service.

“We took an oath to leave no one behind,” he said.

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