A time for remembering, honoring, and respecting those who fought and gave their lives defending our nation and its Constitution — that is what Memorial Day is all about. At the end of the Civil War, when so many bodies littered the battlefields, the government had to step in and create national cemeteries. So the tradition of memorializing our heroes is as American as apple pie. This year, however, the COVID-19 lockdown has irreparably changed lives, leaving veterans to be buried alone, without loved ones nearby and the send-off ceremony they so richly deserve.
This year, Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery has closed its gates to all but those who are family pass holders. Although President Donald Trump will be attending the annual wreath-laying ceremony, across the nation many traditional activities have been canceled or severely limited. So what do families do when their veteran passes away amid this pandemic? For those brave souls who put their lives on the line to fight for our freedom, a quiet funeral with family watching outside of locked gates is their reward.
The New York Daily News painted a sad picture as it told the story of Vincent Panettieri, a 77-year-old U.S. Army serviceman who died of Coronavirus just three days shy of his birthday. A ten-car motorcade followed the hearse to Long Island National Cemetery but was stopped just inside the gates while the hearse continued.
Anne Marie Stahurski, the Vietnam veteran’s daughter, remembered the April 28 funeral in which she had wanted to hear the trumpets playing “Taps” and to watch the folding of the American flag, but instead she had to watch the funeral from afar. “We followed him to the cemetery and that was it,” she said. “We had to turn around. It’s not fair. It’s not what he deserved. But under the circumstances, it was the best we could do.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs temporarily suspended committal services on March 23 due to the virus crisis. For the time being, America’s heroes are interred without family or friends nearby or any of the military honors they would normally receive. Panettieri is just one of approximately 1,300 veterans buried at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale and Calverton National Cemetery in Suffolk County since March 23.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is publishing the names of soldiers who die during the lockdown on its Roll of Honor to salute those who had to be buried without military honors. The roll lists 38 veterans from Long Island National Cemetery and 480 at Calverton National Cemetery between April 13 and May 21.
Honor the Dead by Wearing “Poppy Red”
In 1915, during World War I, Canadian soldier and physician John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields. The poem was the soldier’s reflection as he watched the earth, ravaged by brutal battles in Europe, sprout red field poppies, among the first plants to grow after the devastation. Three years later, at the end of the war, American professor Moina Michael was inspired by McCrae’s work to write We Shall Keep the Faith, in which she mentions honoring the dead by wearing “poppy red.” She became known as the Poppy Lady, and the tradition of wearing a single poppy was born and continues today.
Even though we might not be able to visit veterans’ gravesites, attend parades in their honor, or bask in the sun at the beach, today we can remember the words of these patriotic poems and wear a red poppy to show that, despite the lockdown, we remember and respect our fallen heroes.
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
We Shall Keep the Faith
by Moina Michael, November 1918
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Read more from Kelli Ballard.