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Bellone asks VA to allow groups to place flags in cemeteries for Memorial Day

Gravestones are decorated with flags at Long Island

Gravestones are decorated with flags at Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, on May 28, 2011, Credit: Ed Betz

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is lobbying top officials with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to convince them to rescind a recent decision to suspend permission for community groups to place flags at tombstones in national cemeteries for Memorial Day because of the coronavirus — a determination affecting two cemeteries on Long Island.

In a letter emailed Friday to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, and Randy C. Reeves, the undersecretary of Memorial Affairs, Bellone pressed officials with the National Cemetery Administration, or NCA, to reconsider. He instead proposed allowing personnel with the national cemeteries in Suffolk County, and local health officials, work together to find a safe alternative to salvage the tradition dating back to 1995.

Newsday reported the NCA decision Monday, which affects the Calverton National Cemetery and the Long Island National Cemetery in Pinelawn.

“I am requesting that the NCA amend its recent decision by allowing local cemeteries to make their own determination to conduct flag placement that is sanctioned by the local health department. Suffolk County will work with our local national cemeteries to develop a plan that will be reviewed by the County Health Department to certify that it meets the current guidance from New York State and the federal government,” the letter states.

Les Melnyk, a spokesman for the NCA, wrote in an email Friday: “Due to the COVID-19 national emergency, VA national cemeteries will not be hosting public Memorial Day events, to include mass placement of grave site flags. But families and community members are welcome to visit national cemeteries throughout Memorial Day weekend and place individual flags on graves to honor friends and family. We ask that all visitors adhere to CDC, state and local health, safety, and travel guidelines.”

Both national cemeteries have remained open for burials and visitations during the pandemic, while visitors have been urged to follow social-distancing practices and recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA, and many veterans’ groups are typical participants placing flags at grave sites for Memorial Day. Last year, flags were placed at the Calverton cemetery’s 225,000 graves.

Attorney Charles Borghardt, a Smithtown resident, is an assistant scout master to about 40 Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, he said. He has been placing flags with the Scouts at the Calverton cemetery for Memorial Day, where his father a Marine and NYPD officer is buried, for the past decade.

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“I don’t think the virus is going away tomorrow. We have to learn to live with it,” Borghardt said Friday.

“It’s disappointing. These soldiers went to war. They put their lives on the line to help us,” he said. “We can’t go out and put flags on their gravestones to show them honor?”

Bellone, in his letter, cited how there are more veterans in Suffolk County than any other county in New York.

“There is no better way to demonstrate our strength and resolve to win the battle against this virus than by honoring our fallen heroes even in the midst of this crisis,” he wrote.

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