Only 55% of Americans Know Why the Nation Marks Memorial Day, Survey Finds

(Elizabeth Fraser/U.S. Army)
(Elizabeth Fraser/U.S. Army)

Only 55% of Americans know what Memorial Day is about, and only about one in five plan to fly a flag at half-staff or attend a patriotic event on May 27, according to a Harris poll survey commissioned by the University of Phoenix.

The survey, conducted April 9-11 among 2,025 adults, showed that only 28% had attended a local ceremony or patriotic event on a previous Memorial Day. It also found that only 23% had flown a flag at half-staff, while 22% had left a flag or flowers at a gravesite or visited a military monument.

Only 55% could correctly describe Memorial Day as a day to honor the fallen from all the nation's wars, the Harris survey states, and 45% said they either always or often attended a commemoration activity.

About 27% of those surveyed thought Memorial Day honored all military veterans, 5% thought it honored those currently serving, and 3% thought the day marked the official beginning of summer, the survey states.

Of those who said they had participated in some form of commemoration activity on Memorial Day, 52% said they had thanked a veteran, 14% said they had worn a Memorial Day button, and 14% said they had joined in a National Moment of Remembrance, according to the survey.

Older adults are more likely to observe Memorial Day and describe it correctly, the survey found. About 53% of those aged 55-64 commemorated Memorial Day, compared with 40% of those aged 18-34, according to the survey's findings.

Former Army Sgt. Brian Ishmael, director of Military and Veterans Affairs at the University of Phoenix, said in a phone interview that it is "a little bit disappointing" to know that so many Americans are unaware of the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Ishmael, who served two tours in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, said that "being a combat veteran myself, that has to be a bit disappointing."

At the University of Phoenix, "we put a lot of emphasis" on explaining the real meaning of Memorial Day, he said. For this Memorial Day, the mostly online university will continue a 10-year tradition of planting flags on the Phoenix campus.

This year, the university plans to plant 15,000 flags with the theme "Their Legacy Lives On," Ishmael said.

However, the for-profit University of Phoenix has had a checkered history of serving veterans and its use of GI Bill funds for tuition.

In 2009, the university agreed to a $67.5 million settlement with the federal government on allegations that it was illegally paying recruiters based on the number of students enrolled.

And in 2015, the Defense Department suspended the university from recruiting on military bases and accessing federal education funds.

It was alleged that the university had violated rules against for-profit colleges seeking to gain preferential access to potential students from the military. The suspension was lifted in 2016.

Ishmael acknowledged the allegations against the university but said they are dated, and the school is now "100% focused on our veterans" and their education.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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