Every year, communities throughout the United States hold special Memorial Day ceremonies honoring those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces and have died.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on Monday, May 25, the majority of the familiar big commemorations and big crowds will be gone, along with the parades, speeches and bands.
However, in their place, local veteran groups are continuing to find ways to honor fallen comrades, whether privately, virtually or quietly.
Normally, Chanhassen, Savage and Shakopee host large public ceremonies.
The events are long-standing traditions. Chanhassen has been holding Memorial Day services since 1954, according to American Legion Post 580 Sergeant-at-Arms James Schindler.
However, this year, some veterans groups are canceling services, or holding private services at area cemeteries.
“We want to make sure we don’t violate (social) distancing,” said Shakopee American Legion Post 2 Commander Bernie Baumann, of Shakopee’s canceled ceremony.
Members of Savage’s Dan Patch American Legion Post 643 and Chanhassen American Legion Post 580 each plan to visit three local cemeteries with small honor guards.
However, to maintain social distancing, and keep the numbers of participants low, the services will be private and abridged.
“We have decided not to do our formal program,” said Legion Post 643 Commander Nile Plapp.
Jordan veterans continue to honor the fallen on Memorial Day. They’re just scaling back a bit.
There will be no parade, no Gettysburg Address, no roll call of the fallen.
However, veterans will still visit St. Joseph, Spirit Hill and Calvary cemeteries. At each cemetery, there will be a shortened ceremony, with a flag raising, prayer and “Taps,” according to Mary Jane LaPlant, Jordan VFW Post 2854 Auxiliary president. Flags will also be placed on the graves of veterans at Jordan cemeteries.
The cemetery is wide open, so people can maintain social distance, said VFW Post 2854 Commander Phil Schmieg.
“I think people are stepping back and taking more note of what’s really important,” Schmieg said. The public needs to honor what those who have served have given, and “appreciate what we have for our freedoms and our benefits in this country,” he said.
In Chaska, Memorial Day will be virtual.
“It won’t be the same thing, but it’s as close to a substitute as we can get,” said Chaska VFW Post 1791 Commander Rich Daniels. “For a local production, it’s going to be pretty cool.”
It was lights, camera, action on May 14. Veterans, volunteers and city employees filmed Memorial Day services in Chaska’s new Veterans Park, to broadcast on Memorial Day via local cable and YouTube.
Gary Van Eyll, former Chaska mayor and incoming American Legion Post 57 commander, supervised the flag raising, directing a few takes before it was camera ready.
“We thought of this as a virtual way to do this,” Van Eyll said. “We thought we could make it special and still have that ceremony and still have that tradition going.”
“What we want to do is make sure we’re honoring fallen veterans,” said American Legion Post 57 Commander Steve NaSalle. “The VFW and Legion are still here to serve the community.”
Like other cities, Prior Lake has canceled its large Memorial Day ceremony.
However one tradition continues.
Every year Rich and Darlene Davidson, with Frieda Barlage, Tom Moore and Tim Harper, install hundreds of flags in seven Prior Lake cemeteries.
They began helping Tony and Mildred Conry with the initiative in 1992, taking over the program in 2005.
Every year the crew, ages 71-87, spend 145 hours putting up 548 flags. The flags, and in many cases markers, honor veterans dating back to the Civil War, and members of the veteran auxiliaries.
The crews also need to put up hundreds of markers for the flags. To make sure they’re getting all the graves, Darlene keeps a database of 1,308 Prior Lake veterans and auxiliary members who have died, gleaned from obituaries and other reports. (Not all the veterans are buried in Prior Lake cemeteries.)
“With the virus and everything, we felt that this would be something that would be a real positive note,” Rich said.
At the end of the day, Rich said he can look at hundreds of flags flying in a cemetery. “It’s a heartwarming sight,” he said.
It’s also something American and spiritual, Rich said — something to look at and say, “We’re going to make it through this.”
Something new this year in downtown Prior Lake is the installation of 16 new banners honoring those currently in the U.S. Armed Services.
Mark and Dawn Kes “were the foundation of the program,” which began several months ago with assistance from the city, said Prior Lake VFW Post 6208 Senior Vice Commandeer Dave Thompson.
Memorial Day is about honoring those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, Thompson said. He said he hopes those passing the banners will “have a chance to think about those who’ve gone before, and thank those currently serving.”
The banners will hang in downtown Prior Lake until Labor Day, and then be presented to the families, Thompson said. The plan for future years is to also honor past members of the military.
Despite the lack of public celebrations, veteran group leaders note the public honor the fallen in other ways.
Commander Plapp recalls a family who visited a cemetery last year. “They had a tape recorder that had a bugle playing ‘Taps,’ and stood around and put flowers down and everyone said a bit,” Plapp said.
Chanhassen Legion 580 Commander Glenn Anderson recommended putting up a flag or calling a veteran to lift their spirit.
Commander Daniels agreed.
“Besides remembering those we lost, a lot of veterans are stuck at home. Give them a call and tell them ‘Thank you for your service,’” Daniels said.
“It’s a good time to reflect on our values,” said Commander Schmieg. “We go through hard times. But this is a great country to live in, and it is because of the sacrifice of the men and women that have served before us and we need to honor them.”
Daniels, a Vietnam War veteran who has lost friends and family in combat, plans to visit Chaska’s Veterans Park on Memorial Day and reflect.
“I think about that — what they’ve given for the country, what they’ve sacrificed for the country, Daniels said. “Memorial Day is about those who have served and given the ultimate sacrifice.”