V.A.: Honoring the fallen will be different this Memorial Day

The coronavirus pandemic is changing another annual tradition this year. The way in which our nation’s fallen heroes will be honored at cemeteries across America will be different than previous years. There will be no large groups of volunteers placing American flags at headstones of graves to commemorate their service to our country.

Traditionally, groups of individuals like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, for example, gather to place flags at cemeteries as a way of honoring fallen veterans and completing community service hours towards merit badge requirements. For scouts, it’s a group service project that teaches them to work together while doing good in the community. Some volunteer groups can grow quite large and while normally that would be a good thing, this year it is a concern, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing measures are still required everywhere, whether a state has reopened to some normal activities or not.

This year the Department of Veterans Affairs has banned mass flag placements due to the pandemic. The U.S. National Cemetery Administration, the federal agency within the Department of Veterans Affairs that operates the sites said, “Because of the “national emergency, VA national cemeteries will not be hosting public Memorial Day events,” and that includes “mass placement of gravesite flags.” On Long Island, N.Y. a county executive is asking for reconsideration of the ban.

On Long Island, N.Y., where more than 500,000 veterans are buried at two national military cemeteries, there are demands for the VA to reconsider and rescind the ban.

“If we can’t figure out a way to make sure we are placing flags at their graves to honor them, then something is seriously wrong,” said Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone, whose county includes the sprawling Calverton and Long Island National Cemeteries, which hold more veterans than any other military cemetery in the nation, including Arlington National Cemetery.

Bellone is confident that officials can carry out a plan that would keep the Scouts safe.

“What we’re asking the VA to do is, rather than have a blanket policy across the country, allow the national cemeteries at the local level, to make this determination in conjunction with the local health department,” he told Fox News. “We will take the responsibility to say that this flag placement plan meets the state and national guidelines but give us that opportunity to do it, allow us to honor our fallen heroes.”

Every year, the members of Boy Scout Troop 443 from Middle Island, N.Y., place thousands of flags next to the headstones at one of the Suffolk sites, the Calverton National Cemetery.

It’s a legitimate complaint that a blanket order – a one size fits all approach – doesn’t work everywhere. Agencies in the federal government, though, are set up to make sweeping generalizations in public policy, not to tailor policy to individual communities or states. What may work for large military cemeteries in New York may not be necessary for other states. In the case of Long Island, the agency noted that it hasn’t met the state’s criteria for reopening and social gatherings must be limited. The Suffolk County executive posed a question as he said that surely there is a way to do this and practice social distancing.

“We just commemorated VE Day, this is the generation that lived through the adversity of the great depression, they won World War Two. What is it going to say about our generation if we can’t figure out a way to honor the greatest generation by placing flags at their graves on Memorial Day?” asked Bellone.

The scouts will be fine and there will be other good deeds to do for the community. It will likely be a disappointment for families and friends who come to pay their respects on Memorial Day. To them, the veterans administration suggests they bring their own flags and flowers and place them at the graves of their loved ones.

However, visitors will be allowed to visit the cemeteries over the holiday weekend to place flowers or flags at the grave sites of loved ones, provided they avoid any large gatherings or close contact with other families.

The department is also scrapping plans to hold large-scale commemorative events to mark the holiday, set aside each year to honor individuals who died while serving in the armed forces.

In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the ongoing coronavirus restrictions will force this year’s observation to be “different” but pledged the spirit of the holiday will remain unchanged.

“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,” he said.

Veterans Affairs officials will still hold wreath-laying ceremonies at department cemeteries across the country but they will not be open to the public. There will be no large public gatherings allowed. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the commemorations will be different but they will maintain the spirit of the holiday. Each VA cemetery will hold a wreath-laying ceremony, hold a moment of silence, and play “Taps”. All of the cemeteries will be open from dawn to dusk on Monday, 25, Memorial Day. The department also recommends that visitors come on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday in order to practice safety guidelines like social distancing.

Also available for families this year will be the Veterans Legacy Memorial online. Beginning today (May 14) families may leave tribute comments on a veteran’s memorial page. The online site includes a section for every veteran or service member interred at a VA cemetery.

We do things differently now, due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is another example of how past traditions are changing to accommodate the virus outbreak.