Honoring veterans, from a distance

American Legion members and others take part in a Veterans Day ceremony last November at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery. (Photo by Foon Rhee)

Editor’s note: Memorial Day won’t be the same during the COVID-19 pandemic

In some respects, Memorial Day 2020 will be commemorated with the same, time-honored traditions. At each and every national cemetery, wreaths will be laid and “Taps” will be played.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot will be different.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced this week that the May 25 ceremonies will not be open to the public, though they can be viewed on Facebook and Twitter. Volunteer groups will not place thousands of small flags at all gravesites. And families who visit loved ones will have to follow physical distancing and may have to wear face masks.

“This year, by necessity, will be different from past Memorial Day observances,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a 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.”

All national cemeteries will be open on Memorial Day from dawn to dusk, but the VA encouraged families to visit Friday, Saturday or Sunday instead to avoid large crowds.

In addition, the VA is offering a new way to pay tribute—the Veterans Legacy Memorial online site, which includes a memorial page for every veteran interred in a national cemetery. Virtual visitors can leave comments that will be reviewed for “appropriateness” before being posted.

More and more veterans are being interred in national cemeteries as the Greatest Generation passes away; of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than 500,000 are still alive. Korean and Vietnam war veterans are also dying in growing numbers.

There are 142 national cemeteries, including nine in California. Nearly 40,000 veterans and family members have their final rest at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery near Dixon.

Officials there said it will be open from sunrise to sunset the entire weekend. They also encouraged visitors to determine the grave location of their loved one in advance because staff will not be available to help.

Sacramento Valley National Cemetery is committed to observing Memorial Day 2020 in a manner that honors those who sacrificed for our nation while protecting the health and safety of visitors and our team members,” cemetery Director William T. Pickard III said in a statement Thursday.

All these solemn observances are important. But another way to honor our veterans this Memorial Day is to protect them from COVID-19.

That clearly isn’t happening, with reports from across America about deadly outbreaks at veterans’ homes, including 88 deaths at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Mass., 79 at the New Jersey Veterans Home in Paramus, N.J., and 23 at the Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City, Ala.

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