NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A long-running Memorial Day tradition and way to honor veterans by placing flags at their headstones in the Arkansas State Veteran’s Cemetery was canceled this year because of COVID-19.
The National Cemetery Administration asked all 142 national cemeteries to cancel placement and retrieval of gravesite flags since it’s typically done by large groups of volunteers.
“It made me sad,” said Paul Garrett, a Marine Corp. veteran who fought in the Vietnam War. “It’s a humbling sight to see that cemetery with a flag at each headstone.”
Usually, Garrett joins more than a hundred volunteers who work together the week before Memorial Day to make sure there’s a flag next to every headstone.
“You were hoping there was a way we could keep our social distance, wearing masks and gloves,” he added.
Garrett says he understands why that event was deemed too risky during a pandemic.
“A lot of us that volunteer, veterans I’m speaking of, are older and in the high-risk group. So it makes sense that they would do this,” Garrett said.
That risk is all the more real at the cemetery where two employees recently tested positive for COVID-19. That prompted the National Guard to step in and help with grounds maintenance so the cemetery is ready for Memorial Day.
“Right now the experts are telling us that a big event, with a lot people doing good things is not the right time,” said Assistant Director for Veteran Cemeteries William Wussick.
Instead Wussick says small groups can come on their own and place flags.
“We’re trying to create an opportunity if they wish to come out on their own and place flags that’s fine,” he said. “We’re trying to prevent folks from getting sick and still honor our veterans.”
It means some veteran’s grave sites could be overlooked but Garrett knows they’re not forgotten.
“Everyone out there has answered that call to duty and they deserve to have that flag placed on their headstone,” Garrett said.
The cemetery says family members are welcome to visit their loved one’s graves.
On Monday the cemetery will host the state’s wreath-laying ceremony on Monday. That is closed to the public but will be live-streamed.