Armed Forces Day is fast approaching. It's celebrated on the third Saturday in May, a month filled with holidays dedicated to various servicemembers: Military Appreciation Month, Memorial Day, Victory in Europe Day, Military Spouse Appreciation Day and more. Celebrations are typically local and include parades, social events and sometimes sales. This year, Armed Forces Day falls on May 19.

Armed Forces Day celebrates a significant event in history: the unification of the separate branches of the military. Before the end of World War II, the War Department and the Naval Department acted separately, and the secretary of each organization reported directly to the president.

Armed Forces Day celebrates the unification of the separate branches of the military.Armed Forces Day celebrates the unification of the separate branches of the military.

At the end of the war, President Harry Truman proposed a unified department to handle all aspects of national defense, believing this would cut back on wasteful spending and encourage interdepartmental collaboration. He signed the National Security Act in 1947, creating the National Military Establishment to unite the Army and Navy. In addition, the law created the U.S. Air Force (which had been known as the Army Air Forces), the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the National Security Resources Board and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In charge of the National Military Establishment was a single Secretary of Defense. The establishment was then renamed the Department of Defense on August 10, 1949.

That same year, Defense Secretary Louis Johnson announced the creation of Armed Forces Day to replace separate celebrations for the Army, Navy and Air Force. This goal wasn't exactly achieved, as each branch of the military still has its own day of recognition. That said, Armed Forces Day remains an opportunity for all servicemembers and civilians to celebrate the role of the military in upholding the American way of life.

Secretary Johnson had the support of President Truman, per the Department of Defense, speaking on the holiday during his Presidential Proclamation on Feb. 27, 1950.

"Armed Forces Day, Saturday, May 20, 1950, marks the first combined demonstration by America's defense team of its progress, under the National Security Act, towards the goal of readiness for any eventuality," he said, according to the DoD. "It is the first parade of preparedness by the unified forces of our land, sea, and air defense."

Despite being held in such high regard, Armed Forces Day didn't become a national holiday until President John F. Kennedy declared it so in 1961.

Celebrating Armed Forces Day

The first holiday in 1950 had air shows, receptions, open houses and parades. It was also celebrated internationally; servicemembers in Berlin had their own festivities. Every year has a theme, and the first was "Teamed for Defense" to express the unification of all military forces.  This first holiday was also an opportunity for civilians to learn more about the goals and achievements of the military. 

Other themes for Armed Forces Day include:

  • Freedom.
  • Patriotism.
  • Liberty.
  • Freedom Through Unity.
  • Guardians of Peace.
  • Appreciation of a Nation.
  • Arsenal of Freedom and Democracy.
  • Deter if Possible, Fight if Necessary.
  • Lasting Peace.
  • Dedication and Devotions.

This year's theme is "All Across America," per the DoD, showcasing the ways servicemembers work for civilians while on American soil. The theme coincides with the department's This Is Your Military initiative and #KnowYourMil hashtag, which aim to display the positive truth of military life.

This Armed Forces Day, let's take time to celebrate the unified military and all the ways servicemembers have protected American freedoms. Civilians can share personal stories of the servicemembers and veterans in their lives on social media by contributing to the #KnowYourMil campaign.