In a very different way of celebrating this Memorial Day, Long Islanders gathered in socially distant crowds to honor the lives of those who fought for our freedoms. Credit: Newsday / Staff; James Carbone; Howard Schnapp; Randee Daddona

This story was reported by Rachelle Blidner, James Carbone, Jesse Coburn, Zachary R. Dowdy, Scott Eidler, Candice Ferrette, Howard Schnapp, Nicholas Spangler, Yeong-Ung Yang and Dandan Zou. It was written by Vera Chinese.

There were no large cemetery ceremonies, only graveside speakers standing 6 feet apart from one another and wearing surgical masks as Long Islanders on Memorial Day honored those who gave their lives to defend this country.

The annual event at Calverton National Cemetery typically draws hundreds who instead were asked to stay home and observe a much smaller ceremony on a Facebook livestream. This year featured just a handful of speakers including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Randy Reeves and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin.

“Our resolve to honor them, our emotions in reflecting on them, our strongest desire to celebrate and never forget them never wavers, no matter what the circumstances are,” said Zeldin (R-Shirley), a U.S. Army veteran.

Reeves said it was important to be in a place he called the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis.

“Today it is our solemn obligation to do one really important thing and that is to remember,” he said.

Dee McMahon of Glen Head visited her late father Patrick McMahon’s fresh grave at Calverton Monday morning. A retired command sergeant major in the U.S. Army and retired Suffolk County police officer, he died of congestive heart failure. Monday would have been his 82nd birthday.

McMahon said she had to watch her father’s burial in April from her car due to the pandemic. With multiple interments that day, it was difficult to tell which was her father’s coffin.

“You want to see the person be buried. You want to see that for closure,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people will have closure."

And in Manhattan, the annual service aboard the USS Intrepid, now the site of a sea, air and space museum, also was a virtual event.

While the ship hosted a service to honor the 270 service members who lost their lives serving on it and to commemorate all those in the armed forces, the ceremony was scaled back.

Navy Cmdr. Jay Yelon, a trauma surgeon at Northwell Health’s Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, was among three aboard the ship to lay wreaths. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was also among those laying wreaths.

“We have to take extra time to pause and remember those who have laid their life down for this country because without them we would have nothing,” Yelon, 56 of Bayside, said after the ceremony. He spent more than five weeks caring for about 100 critically ill COVID-19 patients at Southside and one week at the Army Corps of Engineers temporary hospital at the Jacob Javits Center.

Car parade in East Meadow

The Nassau County Memorial Day celebration passes by in East...

The Nassau County Memorial Day celebration passes by in East Meadow's Eisenhower Park on Monday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

In East Meadow, some of the traditional rites of Memorial Day took place outside the Eisenhower Park Veterans Memorial. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran placed a wreath on the memorial, which was framed by miniature American flags. Larger flags on tall poles, at half-staff, surrounded the field in the backdrop and an honor guard performed a 21-gun salute.

A parade of cars streamed by on the adjacent parkway. The parade route began by NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum at Charles Lindbergh Boulevard, then to Merrick Avenue, and ended at Park Boulevard.

"We know that we celebrated differently this year. It's not the same kinds of ceremonies," Curran said to those gathered. "It's so important that we take this time to honor those who have died protecting our freedoms."

In Levittown, veterans, others keep tradition alive

In Levittown, Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin spoke in front of a few dozen attendees, including World War II veterans and family members of those lost in wars, at the Levittown Veterans Memorial Park.

The park is where the annual Memorial Day parade, which started in the early 1950s and usually drew a crowd of thousands, typically ended, organizers said. The parade was canceled this year, but to keep the tradition alive, officials held a socially distanced event that, like the Calverton ceremony, was livestreamed on Facebook.

“Every Memorial Day, this community has regularly come together to say: ‘Let’s not forget. Let us pay our respects,’” Clavin said Monday. “It’s not about a sale. It’s not about going to a barbecue at a friend’s house or running down the beach. It’s about remembering the men and women who gave us the ability to enjoy a day like this because they gave the ultimate sacrifice.”

During the 15-minute ceremony, Spc. Daniel A. Fuentes’ parents, Armando and Nancy Fuentes, stood behind Clavin, wearing masks and holding pictures of their 19-year-old son who was killed in 2007 in Iraq.

“Because their loss of their son is still fresh in their minds, it gives them a true outlet to be surrounded by their community,” Clavin said after the event.

Socially distanced ceremony in Suffolk

Suffolk officials held a small, socially distanced Memorial Day ceremony in Patchogue Monday and compared the fight against COVID-19 to war.

Suffolk Legislature Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) likened the current crisis to World War II, when “sacrifices were expected from those on the homefront to protect those on the war front,” including rations, curfews and other restrictions.

“All of us have been doing our part on the homefront so that we can support those men and women” on the front lines against COVID-19, he said.

As officials standing 6 feet apart commemorated Americans who “made the ultimate sacrifice” in battle, many also expressed gratitude for the efforts of health care and other front-line workers during the pandemic.

“As we stand here on Memorial Day in the middle of a crisis, it’s not a military war as we know it but a silent killer that must be defeated,” Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri said in a ceremony outside American Legion Post 269.

Smaller gathering with the family

For David Hance’s family in Inwood, Memorial Day usually means a backyard barbecue packed with friends and family.
The tradition continued this year, but the gathering was limited to immediate family, and two crucial guests were missing: Hance’s father-in-law and one brother-in-law. Both died of the coronavirus in March.
“I know a lot of people are complaining they can’t do their normal things, but we're just still in disbelief that we lost two very healthy men to this pandemic,” Hance said. “So nothing else really matters.”

Freeport remembers

With a large American flag suspended from a firetruck in the background, Marines, firefighters and police officers joined Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy Monday to mark Memorial Day with a brief ceremony at William J. Martin Park.
“Today, we are remembering our veterans that gave their lives for this country,” Kennedy, who is also a Navy veteran, said in an interview. “We want to thank, also, during this time of COVID-19, all of our nurses, doctors, hospital staff and the medical staff who’s out there helping to protect our people. All of the first responders, we want to say thank you to.”

Scouts read names of veterans

Scouts Scarlett Conn, left, of Troop 163, Evan Conn of...

Scouts Scarlett Conn, left, of Troop 163, Evan Conn of Troop 303 and Amelia Walkoff, 13, of Scout Troop 163, salute after reading the names of the fallen at the Memorial Day service at the Veterans Memorial in Silver Lake Park in Baldwin on Monday. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

In Baldwin, Scarlett Conn, 10, a scout with Troop 163 in Rockville Centre, planned to place flags and read the names of the veterans that appear on the Silver Lake Park memorial, joined by her brother Evan, an Eagle Scout, and fellow scout Amelia Wolkoff.

Scarlett has a grandfather who did three combat tours in Vietnam, but this was to be her first Memorial Day ceremony. “We’re doing it to remember lives that have been lost in war, protecting our freedoms,” she said.

In Rockville Centre, Tom Varney and his boys usually observe Memorial Day by participating in the village parade and wreath ceremony, then visiting the American Legion and the grave of Tom’s father, William F. Varney Jr., World War II Army captain.

This year there was no parade, the Legion was closed and the ceremony was conducted with masks, with fewer attendees than usual.

Varney, 56, Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 40, attended the event at the village recreation center with assistant scoutmaster Michael O’Hare; scouts Jimmy Loud, 13; Michael O’Hare, 13; and his sons Daniel, 18, and Matthew, 15, also scouts.

“They’ve had the history before,” said Varney, whose own father was an American Legion commander and scoutmaster of the same troop. “They know it’s about fallen soldiers and remembering the supreme sacrifice they made for our freedom.”

“It was solemn, but it felt good because it felt like we’re going back to some social norms,” Matthew Varney said.

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