Pandemic ushers in new Memorial Day traditions
By GEORGE BARNES | Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. | Published: May 23, 2020
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WORCESTER (Tribune News Service) — The drums may be silent this year, and the mournful notes of taps, most speeches and traditional music will be heard only on computer or public access television, but on Memorial Day, faced with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, many communities are finding ways to remember those who died for their country.
It is an unusual year. Parades will not be held, and people will not be able to gather to hear speeches and watch traditional ceremonies. What will happen instead is being called a virtual Memorial Day.
Worcester Veterans Agent Alex R. Arriaga said Worcester is doing all it can while taking safety into consideration. People will not be able to attend in person, but will be able to view ceremonies at various monuments, speeches by city officials that are being filmed online and on local cable access TV.
The ceremonies will air beginning at 3 p.m. Monday. The challenge facing the city and many other communities is to give people a sense of the emotional impact of remembering those lost in war.
"A lot of what draws veterans together is camaraderie," Arriaga said. "What we are doing is a new way of sharing that camaraderie and remembering what Memorial Day stands for."
Arriaga said people should be sharing through social media, by phoning a neighbor or phoning a family member and reflect on what the day is all about.
"Although we can't be physically together, we can share this," he said.
Arriaga also encouraged residents to visit the graves of veterans, monuments around the city and the hundreds of memorial squares honoring veterans.
Around Worcester Common alone are several monuments. The most visible is the Civil War Soldiers' Memorial, which dominates the Common. In the center of the Common is the city's World War II Memorial and fountain. Nearby in a small graveyard on the common is the Bigelow Monument honoring Revolutionary War patriot Timothy Bigelow.
Less visible around the Common are the state Southwest Asia War Memorial, the city's Vietnam War Memorial, the Ex-POW Memorial, plaques on the front of City Hall honoring those who served on the Spanish-American War and the bronze statue of Marine Lt. John V. Power of Worcester facing Franklin Street. Power was awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II in the Battle of Namur Island.
Behind City Hall is a plaque honoring the late Judge Paul V. Mullaney, a World War II and Korean War veteran who was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts for actions in Korea. He served Worcester as a city councilor and mayor, and 13 years as a district court judge.
A short walk from the Common is the Korean War Memorial at Foster and Front streets. The state Vietnam War Memorial is in Green Hill Park.
On Sunday night the Kenneth F. Burns Memorial Bridge over Lake Quinsigamond will be bathed in gold light honoring Gold Star families who lost a loved one in the service of their country. He said that more than 40 structures across the state will be lighted gold in honor of the families.
Arriaga said those visiting the memorials and cemeteries should follow social distancing guidelines, going in small groups. The city and state guidance recommends they wear masks if they are in a situation where they are unable to socially distance, but remembering those who served is important.
"This is a celebration of every single veteran, that whether they died in combat or after, they really dedicated their lives to the service of their country and the betterment of their communities," Arriga said.
Along with the city, the state has put together a virtual Memorial Day program to help in the celebration of the day.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought challenges to planners of Memorial Day ceremonies, and for Timothy Gagnon, a new way of thinking about who should be honored.
The day was set aside to remember the honored dead who served their country in the military, but Gagnon, veterans agent for Spencer and East Brookfield, said this year he is thinking about a new group of people who have protected the nation in a time of crisis.
"Who knew we'd be adopting all the medical personnel as veterans this year," he said. "They've shown grace under fire in every instance."
Gagnon said the doctors, nurses and other medical workers have placed themselves at risk from COVID-19 and in some cases lost their lives. They have worked long hours at great risk in the hope of saving lives, accepting the risks at work and facing the possibility of bringing the illness home to their families.
"They have shown a lot of courage and valor," he said.
Gagnon said traditional Memorial Day services are not happening this year. He said the communities he serves decorated veteran graves with flags, but in the past Scout troops participated.
"That's not going to happen," he said. "It's a strange time. Most of the veterans I am responsible for are hunkered down."
Justin Sousa, who serves as veterans agent for Grafton, Northboro, Shrewsbury and Westboro, said events in all his towns have been canceled. Each town has filmed ceremonies and will show the town's events on local cable access channels as well as on town websites and on social media.
He said most veterans agents are taking the same approach. The programs will include messages from chairmen of Boards of Selectmen, local state representatives, state senators and Maj. Gen. George Keefe, adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard.
Sousa said programs also include participation by local school bands and Boy and Girl Scouts. Although events will be held in a virtual way, what is lost in the personal interaction between the public and veterans and a chance to better remember those who died in the service of their country.
"Veterans march to remember the fallen," he said. "That is the biggest loss in this, the personal connection between veterans that organize these events and the citizens who go to see them."
The big issue for Memorial Day is the concern for social distancing. Participation in communities has been on the wane for many years, but Webster and Dudley veterans hold a popular parade each year that begins in one town and ends in the other. The parade was canceled after police felt it would not be safe to hold the event.
Victor Jankowski, commander of the Webster-Dudley Veterans Council, said they are limited on what they are doing this year.
Webster has a strong military tradition. In the center of town its Civil War monument is one of the most elaborate in the state. The Memorial Day parade has been an annual highlight, but this year, not only is it canceled but even gun salutes at various ceremonies will also be limited.
Traditionally four shots are fired using blanks before taps is played. Jankowski said that in a normal year the veterans council provides a unit to provide military honors on Memorial and Veterans days and at funerals in Webster, Dudley and surrounding communities. This year the pandemic has made it difficult to purchase blank ammunition.
In Hope Cemetery on Wednesday, Valerie Kerxhalli said one thing for Memorial Day has not changed. She said it is a tradition to plant flowers at several family graves and even the weather was cooperating for her and her father Steve, 89.
"This part we have been able to do, to pay respects and plant flowers," she said.
Kerxhalli said she does not go to a lot of Memorial Day events. The priest at her church normally does a Memorial Day service, but she does not believe that will happen.
"Nothing is the same this year," she said, "But we're doing it for the greater good."
Kerxhalli said this year they may just have a small barbecue and toast their neighbors through the fence.
Louise Noonan was also decorating her family grave. A little frustrated that the city had shut off the water due to COVID-19 concerns, she also found that her father's grave did not have a flag indicating he was a veteran. She said Armen R. "Dick" Sarkesian served in World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He later ran Sarkesian's Gas Station on Shrewsbury Street for 50 years.
Noonan said her daughter will not visit her this year due to COVID-19 concerns, but she and her partner will likely hold a cookout by themselves to celebrate the day.
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