A pair of military vets navigate the hilly, meandering paths in a historic cemetery in Boston, searching out soldiers’ graves and planting American flags in front of them.
About 10 miles away, scores of other vets and volunteers do the same, placing more than 37,000 small flags on the downtown Boston Common — a sea of red, white and blue meant to symbolize all the Massachusetts soldiers killed in battle since the Revolutionary War. It’s an annual tradition that returns in full this year after being significantly scaled back in 2020 because of the pandemic.
In Boston and elsewhere, this holiday weekend will feel something closer to Memorial Days of old, as COVID-19 restrictions are fully lifted in many places.
“This Memorial Day almost has a different, better feeling to it,” said Craig DeOld, a 50-year-old retired captain in the Army Reserve, as he took a breather from his flag duties at the Fairview Cemetery earlier this week. “We’re breathing a sigh of relief that we’ve overcome another struggle, but we’re also now able to return to what this holiday is all about — remembering our fallen comrades.”
Around the nation, Americans will be able to pay tribute to fallen troops in ways that were impossible last year, when virus restrictions were in effect in many places. It will also be a time to remember the tens of thousands of veterans who died from COVID-19 and recommit to vaccinating those who remain reluctant.
Art delaCruz, a 53-year-old retired Navy commander in Los Angeles leads the Veterans Coalition for Vaccination, said his group has been encouraging inoculated veterans to volunteer at vaccine sites to dispel myths and help assuage concerns, many of which are also shared by current service members.
“We understand it’s a personal choice, so we try to meet people where they are,” said delaCruz, who is also president of Team Rubicon, a disaster-response nonprofit made up of military veterans.
There’s no definitive tally for coronavirus deaths or vaccinations among American military vets, but Department of Veterans Affairs data shows more than 12,000 have died and more than 2.5 million have been inoculated against COVID-19 out of the roughly 9 million veterans enrolled in the agency’s programs.
The isolation of the pandemic has also been particularly hard on veterans, many of whom depend on kinship with fellow service members to cope with wartime trauma, says Jeremy Butler, a 47-year-old Navy Reserve officer in New York who heads the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“We’re reuniting now, but it’s been an extremely challenging year,” he said. “To have those connections cut off — the counseling sessions, the VA appointments, social events with other vets — those are so important to maintaining mental health.”