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The VA Is Lifting Restrictions At Cemeteries, But Memorial Day May Not Be Back To Normal

 Lynn Rolf Jr., a retired Army colonel, typically spends weeks helping prepare for the Memorial Day commemoration at the Leavenworth Cemetery in Kansas.
Lynn Rolf Jr., a retired Army colonel, typically spends weeks helping prepare for the Memorial Day commemoration at the Leavenworth Cemetery in Kansas.

This story has been updated to reflect the VA's new policies on cemetery visitation, which take effect on May 26, 2021.

About 40,000 veterans are buried among the rolling hills of Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas. The gravestones are spread over 128 acres, with room to spare.

But even as the Department of Veterans Affairs begins to lift restrictions on masks and gatherings at the cemeteries it manages, Memorial Day ceremonies at Leavenworth will be smaller than usual.

It's the second straight year that the holiday commemorations will be affected by the pandemic.

At Leavenworth, Lynn Rolf Jr., a retired Army colonel, typically spends weeks helping prepare for Memorial Day. In a normal year, hundreds of Boy Scouts and their families would show up the week before Memorial Day to plant small American flags at every gravesite.

“We teach them how to step off 12 inches in front of the headstone and put the flag in and turn around and say the name of the soldier, airman, sailor, guardsman,” Rolf said. “If you don’t speak their name, they die a second time.”

Last year there were no Boy Scouts. No small American flags. No honor guard or ceremonial cannon fire. Because of the pandemic there almost wasn’t a ceremony at all.

“We were kind of told everything’s canceled,” Rolf said.

But Rolf and other volunteers negotiated a compromise with the cemetery director. They held a small private ceremony last Memorial Day. There was little fanfare and fewer than a dozen participants. Rolf livestreamed the ceremony on Facebook.

“We weren't going to be told no,” he said. “It just wasn't right. It's un-American, un-patriotic and not something that we should allow — any kind of catastrophic event, pandemic or not, to keep us from honoring our war dead.”

In advance of Memorial Day this year, the VA announced it would lift most restrictions at its national cemeteries. The size of gatherings will no longer be limited, though people who are not fully vaccinated will be required to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

The VA announcement came just days before Memorial Day, and Rolf said there's not enough time to schedule a full-scale holiday commemoration at Leavenworth. So the ceremony at the Kansas cemetery will again be smaller than usual.

The policy change - effective May 26, 2021 - also ends yearlong restrictions on the number mourners who can attend funerals. The VA paused committal services for nearly two months last spring. Then, those burial gatherings at Leavenworth were limited to 10 family members.

Rolf said that was hard on families.

“You don't have the brother and sister, or aunts and uncles from Virginia or down in Oklahoma to be able to come back and participate in it,” he said.

And that sense of community wasn't lost just on Memorial Day.

Stacey Unzicker’s father was killed in Vietnam July 17, 1970 — nine days before she was born.

“I didn't get to ever so much as breathe the same air as my dad. So I tend to take anything honoring our fallen very much to heart,” Unzicker said.

Unzicker likes to honor her father and other veterans at events throughout the year, in which hundreds of people may gather at the cemetery to lay wreathes. She said that simple act — honoring the dead alongside others — is cathartic.

When she was growing up, people didn’t really talk about what happened to her dad.

“That included my family,” Unzicker said. “Mostly because my grandparents couldn’t accept that dad didn’t come home. His body was not viewable so they didn’t have the closure.

“I want to make sure that no one forgets the reason for Memorial Day, and I want to make sure that they don’t forget all that have fallen.”

This year’s Memorial Day ceremony at Leavenworth will be scaled back, but will be open to the public. And the Boy Scouts have been invited back, so people can expect to see those 40,000 small American flags planted at each gravesite.

Rolf, the retired colonel, encourages people to visit the cemetery - on Memorial Day or any day - if only to pause for a quiet moment of reflection about the dead.

“They all served and many made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives for the country,” he says. “When you stand up on one of the far hillsides and look down over it, you're just amazed at the beauty of the place — serene, solemn, but still beautiful.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Chris comes to KCUR as part of Guns & America, a reporting collaboration between 10 public media stations that is focused on the role of guns in American life. Hailing from Springfield, Illinois, Chris has lived in seven states and four counties. He previously served in the Army, and reported for newspapers in Kansas and Michigan. Chris lives in downtown Kansas City. He roots for St. Louis sports teams, which means he no longer cares about the NFL.