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Coronavirus mutes Memorial Day celebrations for veterans in Sonoma County

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American flags in hand, Marine Corps League and American Legion veterans fanned out Friday into the grassy rows of Santa Rosa Memorial Park, solemnly placing the small patriotic emblems at grave sites of their brethren.

The muted, yet symbolic deed is one of the few public expressions available to Sonoma County residents this weekend to commemorate Memorial Day and honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.

What would have been the 49th Avenue of the Flags, 1,000 full-size American flags lining the avenues of the cemetery grounds, will not happen this year. Parades, speakers, patriotic tunes, prayers, rifle volleys and other symbolic military rituals will not happen anywhere in Sonoma County, thanks to the coronavirus and its resulting prohibition on public gatherings.

“All the things we look forward to every year, they are just not going to happen,” said Tim Maloney, general manager of Santa Rosa Memorial Park and an Army veteran.

The pandemic forced the cancellation of other widely attended public Memorial Day commemorations, including Sonoma Valley’s 62nd observance and the popular Rotary Club- sponsored All-American Picnic that follows. The events attract more than 1,000 people each year, organizers say.

Neither can Petaluma veterans hold their planned ceremonies. But they have called their changes a postponement and not a cancellation.

“Our intent is to, after this crisis is over — because Memorial Day is so very, very important to us — find a weekend that’s available and have a service then,” said Duane Wilson of the Petaluma Veterans of Foreign Wars.

For the Naval special operations forces vet, some kind of public commemoration is mandatory.

“Having been a veteran of 32 years of service, it is very important,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of good men and women not make it home, so for me it’s personal. It’s a point of pride to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and also those who haven’t come home.”

Air Force veteran Terry Thurman with the American Legion Post 21 helps erect the Avenue of the Flags each year. Instead, this year she’ll distribute the smaller graveside flags with members of the Marine Corps League Detachment 686.

“It’s kind of an empty feeling, but it’s like a lot of things right now,” she said. “With this shelter-in-place, a lot of our traditions are getting swept under the rug because nobody can meet. It can be very isolating.”

She suggested those interested in commemorating the day do so as if they were walking to a park.

“The Avenue of the Flags won’t be going on, but there will be flags there and the cemetery is a beautiful place to walk up and down,” she said. “We can social distance, go out and meander around and look at the veterans’ graves. Take the kids and talk about what it means.”

While the usual public events won’t happen this weekend, Maloney said, those lost will not be forgotten.

“We still feel the need to honor our veterans,” he said. “It’s something the community looks forward to as well as we look forward to. We look forward to sharing this time with our families and community members who’ve lost their loved ones in service to their country.”

In addition to the smaller graveside flags at the Santa Rosa cemetery, two large American flags will be hoisted Monday in different parts of the park and Maloney will lower them to half-staff at midday in commemoration of those lost.

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Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

Other memorials at the Santa Rosa park and the Rural Cemetery next door can be accessed, within social distancing guidelines, by residents who want to pay their own tributes privately.

There are memorials to the 10 service members from the area killed in the line of duty in the Middle East, prisoners of war and those missing in action, and the graves of veterans from the Spanish-American War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, Korea, Vietnam and World Wars I and II.

“We’ve never closed our gates to that. Officially people can visit their loved ones, but they can’t do it in groups,” Maloney said. “We do practice social distancing here. We ask that people have face coverings on while here.”

Once the shelter-in-place orders relax, he promises the park will continue marking important moments for residents as it has for more than a century.

“I was crushed that we had to cancel our Easter sunrise service. It would have been our 46th annual,” he said. “We’re an institution here. We look forward to all of these things in the future.”

In the meantime, the state VFW recommends residents don patriotic gear, fly an American flag at half-staff, take a moment to reflect on the freedoms and liberties our society enjoys, and give thanks to those who sacrificed their lives to protect them.

Other options to remember the fallen include a virtual ceremony courtesy of Los Gatos Memorial Park, which will hold a virtual version of its annual event. The live stream will begin at 10 a.m. Monday on its Facebook page.

Another annual event will be held, but in a socially distant way.

The National Memorial Day Concert is usually performed live from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, but this Sunday, the concert will feature the National Symphony Orchestra for America without an in-person audience. The show will air on PBS and the Armed Forces Network, and will stream on Facebook and YouTube, beginning at 5 p.m.

It will feature musical performances, documentary footage and dramatic readings that honor service members and their families. It is one of PBS’s highest-rated programs.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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