‘A huge hole’: With Memorial Day festivities canceled, veterans’ groups try to uphold traditions

“While we can’t all be together, we all have family members or people close to us who have served. We can do things to honor them.”

  • By Aaron Kasinitz/PennLive

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(Harrisburg) — Charlie Yost beamed the past couple years while he watched hundreds of people line streets along a Memorial Day parade route in York County.

As a pastor at the Goldsboro Church of God in Goldsboro, Yost cherishes events that unite the community. As a former chaplain for the U.S. Army Reserves who lost several friends in combat during three overseas tours, he values any opportunity to honor soldiers who died protecting the country.

So for Yost, it stung when the Veterans of Foreign War Post 537 in Newberry Township announced a few weeks ago it would cancel Memorial Day festivities in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

“It leaves a huge hole,” said Yost, who serves as a chaplain for VFW Post 537. “We’re very active, we have a variety of speakers at the parades. We had a gold star mother one year. … It’s a great loss not to be able to do that.”

Washington DC, USA - April 9, 2008: A rose rests against a stone slab inscribed with names of the dead at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Visitors to the memorial are reflected in the stone.

Washington DC, USA – April 9, 2008: A rose rests against a stone slab inscribed with names of the dead at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Visitors to the memorial are reflected in the stone.

Veterans’ groups across central Pennsylvania have canceled or postponed Memorial Day events this year to comply with local guidelines during the pandemic. And as many grapple with disruptions to some traditions, they’re also finding ways to uphold others.

Yost said over the two weeks leading up to Memorial Day, members of VFW Post 537 will plant flags on the gravesites of about 1,100 former military members.

Leaders at American Legion Post 751 in Enola also planted flags over the weekend. Commander Dale Thomas, senior vice commander Cindy Steadman and junior vice commander Russell Nutter made the trip to a gravesite together, though they had to prohibit the gatherings or ceremonies that might occur in a typical year.

“We like to honor our veterans,” Thomas said. “But we’re staying in the guidelines as a nonprofit.”

Legion Post 751 canceled its parade through Enola, but Nutter said a small group would come together to raise the flags from half-mast to full height at noon on Memorial Day. The idea is to celebrate military members and to renew some aspects of the holiday while the community still remains safe and follows local social distancing instructions.

American flags are posted in the ground ahead of a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam War Memorial in Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

American flags are posted in the ground ahead of a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam War Memorial in Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a day of picnicking and all those things,” Nutter said.

Gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited in Pennsylvania counties in the red or yellow phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to reopen the commonwealth. That makes it challenging for veterans’ groups to hold Memorial Day festivities even with significant modifications.

Still, Yost said local organizations can dole out responsibilities to carry on traditions like visiting gravesites and flying flags at half-staff. Some areas might opt to host small ceremonies. Yost said he’ll hold an outdoor service at his church on Sunday and plans on mentioning Memorial Day and the value of honoring service members who have died.

“While we can’t all be together, we all have family members or people close to us who have served,” Yost said. “We can do things to honor them.”

Leaders at Legion Post 751 feel the same way. It’s important to stay safe, Nutter said, but he doesn’t intend to ignore Memorial Day.

“It’s a totally different time, a different era,” Nutter said. “This is not something people are used to. But just like the military, we are adapting.”

 

PennLive is a partner of PA Post. Go to PennLive.com for more coverage of central Pennsylvania.

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