National Cemetery of Arizona

Flags can still be placed on graves at the National Cemetery of Arizona but not by large gatherings of volunteers. 

Among the casualties in a pandemic that has taken thousands of lives are the solemn ceremonies that would have been held this holiday weekend in honor of thousands of other lives that men and women in uniform gave for their country.

The canceled ceremonies caused by social distancing guidelines include Mesa’s decades-old Memorial Day tribute.

“There is no ceremony or even placement of flags on graves,” said Mesa American Legion Post 26 Commander John Jones, a Vietnam War veteran who served from 1969 to 1975.

The Young Marines and Legion Riders normally place flags on veterans’ graves at the City of Mesa Cemetery – including those of 20 British airmen killed in training accidents when Falcon Field was a training site during World War II.

But Jones said the Young Marines had not received authorization from national headquarters to participate in group gatherings, so that tradition was canceled.

Flags were placed on graves at another cemetery in Mesa.

Gilbert Legion Post 39 had been encouraging members to meet at Queen of Heaven Cemetery at 7 a.m. yesterday, May 23, to place flags – but respect social distancing guidelines.

Those same guidelines prompted the same ban on ceremonies at the National Cemetery of Arizona for the first time since it opened in 1979.

All national cemeteries, even the 624-acre National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, are closed to large gatherings.

“The health and safety of visitors, veterans, volunteers and team members must be our primary consideration at this time,” the National Cemetery Administration says on its website, stating it was a “difficult decision to not host public events for Memorial Day, including the mass placement and retrieval of gravesite flags by any groups.”

Noting thousands of volunteers gather throughout the weekend to place and retrieve American flags on gravesites, “limiting the number of volunteers is not practical.”

“Cemetery staff will conduct a wreath-laying ceremony to officially commemorate Memorial Day,” the National Cemetery Administration said, adding photos of that will be posted on its Facebook site.

On Memorial Day, however, “families and friends are welcome to place flowers or individual flags at veterans’ gravesites.”

The pandemic has impacted the cemetery in other ways.

Even funerals are restricted to 10 people – and color guards are not being provided since they involve active military and the social distancing guidelines are largely in force for them.

The National Cemetery requires grieving family and friends to remain in their vehicles during funerals and suggests families postpone them for a later, perhaps safer time.

The disruption – which comes in a year when the 75th anniversary of Germany’s May 8, 1945, surrender was quietly observed earlier this month – has also impacted American Legion posts.

All group activities – from Bingo to monthly meetings and even officer elections – have been canceled.

Many are planning more subdued flag retirement ceremonies on June 14, Flag Day.

The American Legion’s state and national conventions have been canceled.

The state convention’s cancellation hit Mesa Post 26 especially hard: It was scheduled to host it.

“We’re losing $25,000 in revenue from that,” said Jones, who feels somewhat cursed in that the convention was supposed to be held last year in Mesa but was moved because the Phoenix Mesa Marriott Hotel was undergoing a major renovation.

Also canceled was the 2020 Arizona Boys State, a week-long program that gives select high school boys a chance to learn how government works. It’s unclear whether a similar program for girls sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary is still on.

Post 26’s headquarters at 505 W. 2nd Ave. is open, Jones said, adding there are no restrictions on the number of people who can be there because “it’s big enough to not be a problem.”

Masks also are not required, although some posts have suggested their members wear them in respect for their colleagues who are over 65 – and in a high-risk group for contracting COVID-19

The absence of formal Memorial Day ceremonies also comes at a time when the 455-member Post 26 hit its 100-percent membership goal for the first time since 2002.

But just because there are no 21-gun salutes, no taps and no formal gatherings doesn’t mean the purpose of Memorial Day should be ignored.

Asked what citizens can do to observe the day, Ahwatukee Legion Post 64 Commander Pete Meier replied:

“Being that the country is in distress, I would encourage all of them to fly the flag on their house. The old saying is ‘United We Stand.’ Put the flag out and give themselves a few moments of silence for the people they knew who went into the service and have passed away and recognize them that way. 

“I wouldn’t encourage a meeting in groups or anything until it opens up more in a few weeks, but they can show unity by putting the flag out, flying the flag during daylight hours and honoring people that way. Give them a moment of silence, a salute and give them their due.” 

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