Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to lift pandemic-related restrictions at national cemeteries for Memorial Day.
Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., both called on VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to reconsider limitations on visitors to America's national cemeteries.
VA announced last week that Memorial Day will look different this year at national cemeteries across the country because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Large-sale public ceremonies and group placements of flags at gravesites were put on hold.
A brief wreath-laying ceremony, accompanied by a moment of silence and the playing of Taps will be held at each cemetery. The ceremonies will not be open to the public due to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which restrict large gatherings, VA officials said.
“VA will still honor veterans and service members with the solemn dignity and respect they have earned through their service and sacrifice,” Wilkie pledged.
All VA national cemeteries will be open Memorial Day weekend from dawn to dusk for public visitation. Cemetery visitors are asked to adhere to health and safety guidelines and maintain physical distancing while visiting. They are also urged to consider visiting Friday, Saturday or Sunday to avoid possible crowds on Memorial Day, VA said. Families may still continue the tradition of placing flowers and small American flags at their veteran’s gravesite.
“With many parts of our country now in the process of a phased re-opening, I find it appalling that beaches will be open for the holiday but that access to VA cemeteries will remain restricted,” Mast, an Army veteran, wrote in a letter to Wilkie. “We are blessed beyond words to be citizens of the greatest country on earth. Restricting Memorial Day ceremonies and preventing the tradition of volunteers placing our beautiful flag on each grave flies in the face of the freedoms that so many have died to protect.”
"While I understand the need to limit large gatherings in order to abide by social distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I believe that the process of placing flags on gravesites can be accomplished while still adhering to CDC, state, and local safety guidelines," Loeffler wrote in her own letter to Wilkie. "Therefore, I ask that you consider allowing small groups of volunteers to continue to participate in this longstanding annual tradition ... designed to bring comfort to those whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice. If small groups of volunteers are able to abide by necessary safety restrictions, I believe their work to honor our service men and women should continue as planned on Memorial Day.”
Wilkie will lead the wreath-laying at Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia May 25. Acting Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Pamela Powers will do the same at Culpeper National Cemetery in Virginia, while Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Randy Reeves will lay a wreath at Riverside National Cemetery in California on May 22, and at Calverton National Cemetery in New York on May 25. Live streaming, recorded video and photographs from these and other ceremonies and will be shared on NCA’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
A new online memorial feature allows the public to pay tribute to the veterans interred in the 142 national cemeteries across the country. The Veterans Legacy Memorial allows online visitors to leave a tribute on the page of an interred veteran.
Julia LeDoux contributed to this report.
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