Coronavirus Is Changing This Year’s Memorial Day Tributes At Fort Logan And Other National Cemeteries

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Mrk Stallins,Fort Logan National Cemetery
David Zalubowsk/AP Photo
Playing a tribute to veterans at gravesites to mark the Memorial Day holiday, retired U.S. Navy yeoman Mark Stallins of Denver performs in Fort Logan National Cemetery on Sunday, May 28, 2017, in southwest Denver.

America will recognize its fallen service members this Memorial Day, as it has for more than a hundred years. But for those wishing to visit memorials and cemeteries, there will be many limitations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year, by necessity, will be different from past Memorial Day observances,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a written statement. “While the department can’t hold large public ceremonies, VA will still honor Veterans and service members with the solemn dignity and respect they have earned through their service and sacrifice.”

Each VA National Cemetery is scheduled to hold a Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony, followed by a moment of silence and the playing of Taps. But the public may not attend those ceremonies.

The National Cemeteries will be open for visitation over the long weekend, though visitors may not congregate in groups.

"We have been sending out information to individuals to let them know that they can go as an individual so we still can go out and provide flags and stuff like that," said Christopher Linski, the Post Commander for Veterans Of Foreign Wars Pike's Peak Post 4051 in Colorado.

Linski, who served two tours in Iraq with the Army, noted that 2020 marks 75 years since the end of World War II. He said it's disappointing there can't be bigger ceremonies to mark that. His VFW post was founded by returning World War II vets, also 75 years ago.

"We had our 75th celebration scheduled for June, which we have had to cancel," he said.

Meanwhile, some other traditional observances will carry on, if altered.

In Eagle County, deep in the Colorado Mountains and home to Vail Ski Resort, Veterans Services Officer Pat Hammon says local Boy Scout troops have still been placing flags at gravesites at the county's four public cemeteries.

"They go through the whole cemetery looking for graves that have markers that say that they're a veteran or a military headstone, which there are many," Hammon said. "They're always amazed that we have some Civil War veterans here, and we have somebody from Teddy Roosevelt's rough riders."

But this year, the 30 or so Boy Scouts all wear masks, follow social distancing guidelines, and work in groups no larger than 10. No parents are allowed to accompany the scouts, and only older scouts can participate.

"It's been a change for everybody because usually there's a fair number of parents that join us and Cub Scouts," Hammon said. "I just figured all these regulations were too much for the younger Cub Scouts."

Still, the ritual can be valuable for the participants. 

"A couple years ago I had some kid ask what the Civil War was," said David Ross, a high school senior and Eagle Scout who serves as a mentor for the younger scouts. "So I kind of talked to him a little bit about that. And so, it's a cool time to bond with the younger scouts."

For those wanting to stay sheltered during the holiday this year, the VA is promoting a website called the online Veterans Legacy Memorial. The agency describes it as the first digital platform dedicated to the memory of the 3.7 million veterans interred in VA national cemeteries.

Visitors to the site can leave comments and tributes on specific veteran's pages.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.