One of the great traditions of the upcoming Memorial Day holiday weekend is the planting of flags by various veterans’ groups along with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and citizens who volunteer to help out.
This year, this isn’t going to happen. According to the National Cemetery Administration, a federal agency that falls within the Veterans Administration and administers the national cemeteries, the Veterans Administration (VA) has prohibited the practice of groups placing flags in our national cemeteries. The VA has already canceled public Memorial Day events, and that includes “mass placement of gravesite flags.” Likewise, the Boy Scouts, through their national headquarters, have banned the Scouts from taking part in ceremonies due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
This will be the first time in decades that the tradition of placing flags on the graves of deceased veterans won’t take place.
While this is understandable considering the situation that not just our nation but the world is facing, the decision isn’t sitting well with some veterans and veterans’ organizations. After all, Memorial Day is reserved for honoring all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Many veterans stepping up on their own to do what they can. They are encouraging the VA to allow the national cemeteries, at the local level, to determine whether to allow groups, in conjunction with the local health department, to place flags in the cemeteries.
The National Cemetery Administration released the following statement: “Families and community members are welcome to visit national cemeteries throughout Memorial Day weekend and place individual flags on graves to honor friends and family. We ask that all visitors adhere to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), state and local health, safety, and travel guidelines.”
Our little town has several small cemeteries and, near its center, a large one, where two separate cemeteries are co-located. We usually have a large group of veterans from the local VFW, American Legion, and our Veterans Council, who in coordination with the local Troops of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and with civilian volunteers, pick an early Saturday in May to put the flags in our cemeteries.
This year, like everywhere else, we’re not able to do that. Plus, many of our active vets are advancing in age and have underlying health issues. So, they’re exactly the people that aren’t supposed to be outside, especially in groups. Like in many places, our younger vets, fresh out of the service, don’t choose to get involved. That will change eventually, but for now, it leaves us a bit short-handed.
Two of our guys took some flags and placed them in two of the smaller cemeteries in town. I went to the Commander of the VFW and together we placed as many flags in my car as it would hold. Then, my wife, my son and I drove to the large cemetery in the center of town. One small section at a time, we started placing flags on the graves of our local vets.
Many locals get out and exercise by walking around the cemetery. One woman approached us and asked what we were doing. She then said something to the effect that we were doing a good job preparing for the annual Memorial Day ceremonies. I thanked her and said that “it is not for us, but for them,” gesturing at the flags. She smiled and asked for a few flags. She posted them in the flag holders before silently moving on again with her walk.
It took us a few days but we got it about 85-90 percent done when we ran out of flags. I called our VFW commander for more, but he was adamant saying, “Nope, the rest of the guys can finish that up.”
In the cemetery, we have some graves that go as far back as the American Revolution. We have a large Civil War section, which includes the graves of a few unlucky souls who died at Andersonville Prison. There are also Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam sections. Luckily, our town hasn’t suffered any combat deaths recently, but the number of placards that hold veterans’ flags grows every year.
The question of whether there will be any ceremonies in town this year is still very much up for debate… except with our veterans.
On Tuesday night, our Board of Selectmen was holding its regularly scheduled meeting virtually. It was discussing whether or not the town should hold any ceremonies at all.
But my friend and fellow paratrooper Bob Roy, a Vietnam vet who served with the 101st Airborne and the 173rd Airborne, was nonplussed. Bob wasn’t impressed with the gravity of the situation, and he has several underlying health issues himself.
“I don’t care if the town stays completely locked up,” he said. “If I have to, I’ll go by myself and conduct the ceremonies alone… I don’t care.”
He added that he hoped that people would still go out and honor those who sacrificed all of their tomorrows for our today.
“It’s not for us, but for them…” Indeed it is.