Arlington, other military cemeteries reopen in time for Memorial Day

She wished it could have come earlier, but Rose Duffman Duval is happy that all visitors to Arlington National Cemetery will soon have the same access she had even at the height of the COVID-19 shutdown last year.

Ms. Duval, a Gold Star mother, said she didn’t have any problems with the restrictions at the massive military cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington. During the COVID-19 closures, she managed to secure a pass to visit the grave of her son, Air Force Tech Sgt. Scott Duffman.

Duffman was a member of the Air Force’s elite Pararescue community, also known as the PJs. He was one of seven service members killed on Feb. 18, 2007, in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Ms. Duval said he volunteered to take the place of a member of his unit whose wife was about to give birth to their first child.

“Scott was good at what he did, and he excelled at anything he loved or cared about. Being a PJ is what he lived for,” said Ms. Duval, who lives about 40 miles away from the Arlington cemetery.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she visited her son’s grave at least once a month and during holidays. Ms. Duval said she can understand the frustrations of other family members of the fallen who have faced more challenges to enter Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery “is run by the Army, and my experience is that there is an expectation from them that family pass holders need to understand this is an Army cemetery and not open to displays or activities found at other cemeteries,” Ms. Duval said. “In my opinion, the rules were over the top and could have been lifted much sooner.”

The pandemic hit the cemetery just as it did other public sites across the country. Arlington National Cemetery officials said the success with vaccines to control COVID-19 will make this Memorial Day vastly different from last year.

Just in time for the day of remembrance, Arlington National Cemetery is easing its restrictions.
Arlington National Cemetery “is a safe environment, and we are pleased COVID conditions have improved enough that we may fully reopen to the public,” said Charles Alexander Jr., superintendent of the cemetery. “We greatly missed everyone, and our staff and the [Tomb of the Unknown Soldier] sentinels miss sharing the cemetery’s rich history with our visitors.”

The cemetery was built on the grounds of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s sprawling manor that was confiscated during the Civil War.

A year ago, funerals were limited to 10 family members and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was closed to visitors. The carefully folded flag traditionally handed to grieving survivors was placed on a table next to the grave for fear of coronavirus transmission.

Arlington National Cemetery and more than 100 other military burial grounds across the country announced relaxations of rules this month. The Metro rail station and the visitors shop reopened, and public access to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was once again permitted.

Some rules, however, remain in place. Masks are mandatory at all indoor settings, and visitors who have not been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 must wear masks at all times on the grounds.

Although restrictions are easing across Europe, Memorial Day ceremonies at U.S. military cemeteries overseas will remain closed this year. Officials with U.S. European Command said they will mark the day with flyovers and virtual ceremonies to commemorate service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

“Memorial Day provides a special opportunity to honor their courage in combat and selfless service,” said Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, commander of U.S. European Command. “Even though COVID-19 continues to impact our lives, [the] commitment to our fallen heroes buried on European soil continues.”

Early in his administration, President Biden set July Fourth as a target date for the country to resume traditional holiday observances and everyday activities largely free of pandemic restrictions.

But with almost 50% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated, Memorial Day to many will feel like the first holiday since the pandemic began.

Surveys consistently show that Americans are often confused about the purpose of Memorial Day. According to a study commissioned by the University of Phoenix, almost half erroneously believe it is meant to honor all military veterans.

“It is important to understand that it is a solemn day of remembrance. For me, as a combat veteran, and for military members and their families, this day holds great significance,” said Brian Ishmael, a former Army sergeant with the University of Phoenix’s military and veterans affairs office.

During her undergraduate years, Cyndi Park-Sheils was surprised to learn that Memorial Day didn’t generate much interest from her fellow students at Elmira College in upstate New York. She thought the holiday was a big deal because her hometown, Waterloo, New York, is officially credited as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

“It’s a two-mile town, but the whole town is filled with bunting from end to end,” said Ms. Park-Sheils, now with the town’s historical society. “Every building has bunting from top to bottom, and red, white and blue is everywhere.”

Waterloo spends the entire weekend commemorating Memorial Day, with solemn visits to the local cemetery and boisterous parades.

“The reason they’re marching isn’t for themselves. They’re marching for all those who can’t be there to march,” Ms. Park-Sheils said.

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