A couple of military veterans go through a historic cemetery in Boston, seeking for soldiers’ graves and placing American flags in front of them. Hundreds of other veterans and volunteers do the same about 10 miles away, placing over 37,000 miniature flags on the downtown Boston Common — a sea of red, white, and blue supposed to represent all Massachusetts troops died in war since the Revolutionary War.
As the pandemic eases, veterans are returning to their Memorial Day traditions.
It’s an annual event that’s back in full force this year after being severely curtailed in 2020 due to the pandemic. Because COVID-19 restrictions have been relaxed in many areas, this holiday weekend in Boston and elsewhere will feel a little like Memorial Day. As he took a break from his flag responsibilities at the Fairview Cemetery earlier this week, Craig DeOld, a 50-year-old retired captain in the Army Reserve, observed, “This Memorial Day almost has a different, nicer vibe to it.” “We’re exhaling a sigh of relief that we’ve overcome yet another challenge, but we can now return to what this holiday is all about: commemorating our dead comrades.” Americans will be able to pay respect to fallen troops in ways that were difficult last year, when many locales had viral restrictions in place. It will also be a chance to reflect on the tens of thousands of veterans who died as a result of COVID-19, as well as recommit to vaccination those who are still hesitant.
Art delaCruz, a 53-year-old retired Navy commander who heads the Veterans Coalition for Vaccination in Los Angeles, said his organization has been encouraging inoculated veterans to volunteer at vaccine sites to dispel myths and alleviate concerns, many of which are shared by current service members. “We understand it’s a personal decision, so we try to meet people where they are,” said delaCruz, who is also the president of Team Rubicon, a disaster-response group run by military veterans. There is no definitive count of coronavirus deaths or vaccinations among American military vets, but data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that out of the roughly 9 million veterans enrolled in the agency’s programs, more than 12,000 have died and more than 2.5 million have been inoculated against COVID-19. The pandemic’s isolation has been particularly difficult on veterans, who, according to Jeremy Butler, a 47-year-old Navy Reserve officer in New York who chairs the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, rely on kinship with fellow service members to cope with combat trauma. “We’re reuniting now,” he continued, “but it’s been an extraordinarily difficult year.” “Having those ties cut off — therapy sessions, VA appointments, social events with other vets — those are very critical for mental health to be maintained.” Memorial Day, on the other hand, can rekindle barely healed traumas for families of veterans who survived the horrors of war only to be killed by COVID-19. Susan Kenney of western Massachusetts says the death of her 78-year-old father from the virus in April is still fresh in her mind. Last year, 76 residents of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home died in one of America’s deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in a long-term care home, including Charles Lowell, an Air Force veteran who served during the Vietnam War.
The names of residents who died in the previous calendar year were read aloud at a memorial service conducted at the home earlier this week. Even as top officials at the state-run facility face criminal negligence and abuse charges, and federal and state agencies launch investigations, Kenney, who has been a vocal advocate for reforming the troubled home, says there are still unanswered questions about who else should be held accountable. She said, “I’ve been reliving this for a year.” “At each and every turning point. Veterans Day is observed on November 11th. It was his birthday. It marks the anniversary of his death. Every detail serves as a persistent reminder of what occurred. It’s excruciating to consider.” For other families, Memorial Day will be the same as it has always been: a day to honor loved ones who have died in battle. Willie Ransom, a 74-year-old Vietnam War veteran, said his family will hold a small memorial service at his youngest son’s grave in Virginia.
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