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Memorial Day Commemorations Altered By Pandemic

A plague reading "Land of the free, because of the brave."
Jim Levulis

Memorial Day ceremonies will look very different this year because of restrictions put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is limiting commemorations for the nation’s fallen military members to 10 people. 

Mike McDermott, the commander of the New York State American Legion, tells WAMC’s Jim Levulis that some of the state’s roughly 800 Legion posts will participate in Memorial Day events. 

McDermott: It’s more of a low-key thing because we have to follow the directions for the New York state as far as social distancing. I mean, so many places had big huge parades. That's your big thing of the year where they can showcase the American Legion and, and also our support for the remembering our dead service members from the wars. And this year, it's a little bit different. There's a lot of apprehension and over the social distancing, this is saying, so what are more, some not all of them, but a lot of them have canceled their, their whole show for Memorial Day. But others are having smaller, maybe not parades, but they're having ceremonies in the cemetery, keeping your social distancing and wearing of masks. And I'm not inviting the public to them. Like even at Homer here for my post, we're having a small ceremony where we're having a prayer and somebody to sing the national anthem, and also laying of a wreath, and the fire salute with the rifles and playing of taps and that's it, but the public's not invited. And we're only going to have about I think it's 10 people, which is what the governor ordered there for, you know, for these ceremonies. So we're following the rules and we decided we're going to do this because we have to honor our vets no matter what. I mean, you realize what our war dead went through and we know a little virus should not stop us. So we're still going to salute them and not as big as it used to be because we used to have a huge parade with the fire department and, you know, and the police and the kids on bicycles decorated and they would lay flowers at our monument, but that's chained this year. A lot of posts are doing the same thing, keeping it small, still, you know, for the day, they're still honoring the day and our veterans is what they're doing. I know a lot of posts. Like I said, have cancelled but a lot of our veterans are older and you know, they're afraid and you can blame them and we want to follow the rules and do what's best but still honor our vets.

Levulis: What advice might you have for people in the community across New York state who do want to honor the fallen on this Memorial Day but as you mentioned, may not be able to take part in the traditional community events? 

McDermott: Well, what we're suggesting is the National commander of the American Legion, he's came out with an idea. It used to be years ago, at three o'clock, they had everybody turn their car lights on and blow their horns to salute the vets because, you know, you were used to we do our ceremonies, you know, try to get it done by 11 o'clock when the you know, the truce was signed for World War I. And but now their national commanders come out where he's hoping that everybody at dusk, wherever they live, at dusk, they would light a red, a white, or a blue candle, or all three and put them on your porch to show support for our veterans of our wars that have passed away. And I think that's a great idea. I mean, we've talked to a lot of people around here that are going to do that. A lot of times for Fourth of July people around lakes or whatever, well, light flares around the lakes, you know, at night, but this is something different. So we're going to try to get it going here in our area and see what happens. And most of the people would, you know, it used to be you’d always laugh you know, where we'd have our Memorial Day ceremonies and then you know, after 12 clock the flag goes back up to full mast and then you celebrate. But of course, it’s gonna be a little bit different this year, people are celebrating so I just you to stay with your family and keep your distance, and I think that'd be the best thing we can do, and just think of your vets at one time or another during the day.

Levulis: How are American Legion posts doing financially during the pandemic, since many of them operate as restaurants, bars and also offer event space?

McDermott: Exactly. There's, there's a lot of them that are hurting, you know, and we're trying to help them out we know these programs and had where they can, you know, apply for these loans or grants however they work it. And I know a lot of them have, I don't have any specifics because you know, each post is different, they run their own finances, but some of them are hurting because the membership isn’t as big as it used to be like after McDermott: World War II and Korea. And a lot of these older people, they just can’t I run these posts like they used to. The volunteer help, it's all like I said, it's all volunteer. And so it's hard sometimes to get these people out. Plus, you can’t open your restaurants or your bars so a lot of our income is from our, you know, takeout food. Some of them are still doing barbecues and takeout, of course following the rules of social distancing. But a lot of your pull tabs, that's a big thing that they passed years ago, it's part of our income pays, you know, you could pay your utilities with that because utilities are still going, maybe not as much as it used to be where you're not open but you still have to pay them and so there's you know, if you have any upkeep or maintenance you have to still pay but without income it’s tough. I'm afraid some of these posts may close before this is over. It's a terrible thing to say and, and think about but I think some of them will close. You know, hopefully they merge with somebody else, but it's sad because a lot of these American Legion posts have been in neighborhoods for years. You know, there's always a community event will be held at the American Legion years ago, and they're still in places that it's the centerpiece of the town in your smaller towns.

Levulis: Does the American Legion have any statement or guidance in regards to veterans with COVID-19 being treated with hydroxychloroquine at VA hospitals, even though the drug is considered unproven in treating the disease?

McDermott: That’s something I wouldn't be able to do, that would be a national. And I've heard the same thing about veterans being treated with this, you know, this this drug, but it's not proven to be working. So I just hope you're not using them as guinea pigs. I mean, a lot of them were used for guinea pigs for years, right, different medications they came out with and it's not right, but I'm sure that if there is truth to this, that it'll come out in and the national American Legion will be after this. Because it's not right. We shouldn't treat our veterans as guinea pigs, I mean, they deserve when they go to these veterans’ hospitals to have the best treatment. And the most these veterans’ hospitals are fantastic. I know Syracuse’s is one of the best. Years ago when I came back from Vietnam, it wasn't all that good. But things have changed and it really made some big improvements and the people up there are dedicated and wonderful people. I couldn't, you know, say anything better about that hospital than I am right now.

In Massachusetts, buildings, bridges, flags and parks are to be illuminated in gold to honor Gold Star Families on the evening of Sunday, May 24. The Department of Veterans’ Services has partnered with MassDOT, building managers and veteran service organizations across the state to invite communities to light up prominent structures. Pittsfield City Hall, the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke and the Military Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Agawam are among those taking part.

A program on Memorial Day involving musical performances, remarks by Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito and legislative leaders, as well as a “Tribute to the Fallen” by the Massachusetts National Guard will be streamed on mass.gov/MemorialDay and on participating TV stations and digital channels.

The Vermont National Guard made a videofeaturing featuring Brig. Gen. Greg Knight, The Adjutant General, Vermont National Guard; Brig. Gen. Henry Harder, Assistant Adjutant General; Brig. Gen. Steven Lambrecht, Air Component Commander and Command Sgt. Maj. Nathan Chipman, State Command Sergeant Major to commemorate Memorial Day. 

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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