November 10, 2020

On a somber Veterans Day, remembrances tinged with mounting loss

American flag in hand, Debbie Weinstein walked slowly across the lush grass Tuesday at Baker Street Memorial Park in West Roxbury.

The Lakeville woman bent toward the ground, placed the flag beside a flat grave marker, and rose to honor Daniel Weinstein, her father-in-law, an Army private in World War II who died in 2008 at the age of 87. Across this sprawling Jewish cemetery at the edge of Boston, Weinstein and the caretakers who work there appeared to be all alone.

“I just came to pay my respects," Weinstein said. “I know that I put the flag there. He knows I put the flag there.”

In the year of the coronavirus, Veterans Day will be far different, keeping friends and family apart at a time that historically mixes solemn remembrance and the joy of camaraderie. On Wednesday, that time will be burdened by the pandemic’s heavy toll, particularly on older veterans.

The traditional parades and speeches have fallen victim to safety precautions, and even the flag-plantings at veterans’ graves are proving a challenge.

Boston canceled its Veterans Day parade, and many remembrances and celebrations across the state will go virtual.

At Baker Street Memorial Park, the veteran groups that have congregated in years past will be only a memory, said Jamie Cotel, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, which counts Baker Street among 125 cemeteries it owns or manages.

Jamie H. Cotel, Executive Director of Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, planted flags around a memorial inside Baker Street Memorial Park to those who died of COVID-19.

Baker Street plans to place flags at the graves of veterans, but few people are expected to visit on Wednesday. Similarly, many mourners were hesitant to attend graveside services this year for veterans and others who died of COVID-19.

Service members in honor guards at Baker Street wore black masks. The sound of taps could be heard from car windows.

“We buried four times our usual numbers” from March to mid-June, Cotel said. “We had burials coming in hour after hour."

Steve Burns, a Marine veteran who manages the group’s cemeteries, said the association buried about 400 people, many of them veterans, during the height of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Cotel and Burns carefully placed American flags around a landscaped oval that contains a Jewish veterans memorial and what is believed to be the country’s first memorial to victims of COVID-19 victims and their families.

“Since the pandemic has had an impact on the volunteers that would otherwise proudly place flags on Veterans Day, we nonetheless found a way to honor our veterans," Cotel said.

Elsewhere in the state, some observances will remain public — with mask requirements, social distancing, and other measures to avoid spreading the virus.

Robert Santiago, Boston’s commissioner of veterans' services and a 20-year Navy veteran, said he will attend socially distant events in South Boston, the South End, and Allston-Brighton.

“We had to pretty much reimagine all our events this year,” Santiago said. “We’re still honoring our veterans. We’re still recognizing our veterans. It just looks a little bit different."

Representative Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat and Marine combat veteran, said he will attend socially distanced events in Salem and Marblehead. However, he will not make the rounds to multiple communities as he does most years.

Moulton’s annual Veterans Town Hall will stream on Facebook Live rather than be held in person. The congressman said he hopes that moving the event online will reach even more people, especially nonveterans who will learn more about the service and sacrifice of their neighbors.

Yet, he acknowledged, "almost by definition, it’s going to be more lonely” for veterans this year. Moulton and others said they worry about veterans, isolated by the pandemic, who are struggling with post-traumatic stress and other mental-health issues related to their service.

“One of the abiding traditions of Veterans Day was getting together with fellow vets, something I’ve done every single year that I’ve been a veteran," Moulton said. “But I won’t be able to do it in person this year.”

Coleman Nee, a Marine Corps veteran who served as Massachusetts secretary of veterans' services from 2011 to 2015, said he will miss the traditional Nov. 10 celebration of the founding of the Marine Corps.

As many as 2,000 Marines typically gather at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for “a day of solemn remembrance followed by great revelry,” Nee said.

“We couldn’t do that this year, so that’s a bit of a disappointment, but many of us will be toasting the Marine Corps in our own way,” he said.

Nee said he plans to devote time Wednesday to advocating on their behalf.

“We’ve got a new president-elect coming in. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of legislation and reforms, and pushing both the federal and state government to expand benefits and services,” he said.

State Senator John C. Velis, a Westfield Democrat and major in the Army Reserve, said he had collected 500 letters of appreciation from public school students that will be distributed Wednesday to veterans in the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, where 76 residents died from the coronavirus this year.

Velis said he will attend a few socially distanced events Wednesday, but that the big parades customarily held in several Western Massachusetts communities have been called off.

The senator said his biggest concern is that with COVID-19 and the presidential election dominating the headlines, some citizens may forget about the “men and women all over the world in harm’s way that are doing what they have to do, even with this global pandemic.”

By:  Brian MacQuarrie and Jeremy C. Fox
Source: Boston Globe