ROSS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Fort Custer National Cemetery has canceled its annual Memorial Day Celebration for May 25 — as all national cemeteries have — and will not host any public events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Families are invited to visit gravesites on any day of the holiday weekend to avoid crowds on Memorial Day itself, but everything else has been called off, including mass flag placements on each grave.
That has clouded the plans of a local group that had hoped to purchase and place thousands of flags. The group, Almost Legal Truck Club, has already raised thousands of dollars to make sure the soldiers buried at Fort Custer are memorialized, even if it now means doing the work alone.
“There’s many members in our community that have family that are buried here and to go unnoticed, I feel, is very disrespectful,” fundraising organizer Richard King said. “The fallen put their lives on the line to protect our country, and we’re going to put all our efforts in to make sure they are properly respected for that.”
Aiming to prevent a large gathering that would allow for the easy transmission of the coronavirus, the group that oversees Fort Custer National Cemetery, the National Cemetery Administration, said in a statement it “made the difficult decision to not host public events for Memorial Day, including mass placement and retrieval of gravesite flags by any groups.”
King and his wife Lacie have other plans.
“Our plans are to provide the flags for all the soldiers that are here. There’s been many people … who aren’t happy with the cancellation of the event so we figured it’s the right thing to do, to place flags here for all these fallen soldiers,” King said. “I feel it could’ve been accommodated. I mean, they could’ve made exceptions to enforce the social distancing. Keep you know, smaller groups.”
He noted there’s plenty of space at the 770-acre cemetery for people to keep apart.
The NCA says there will be a wreath laying ceremony to officially commemorate Memorial Day, which the public will not be invited to attend. Photos and videos of the presentation will be posted to the cemetery’s Facebook page.
It maintains limiting the number of volunteers who would attend a mass flag planting is simply not practical. The NCA did note that individuals and families can keep placing flowers and flags at gravesites, though they are asked to adhere to social distancing.
“I feel a nice, bright American flag for the soldiers here is important. And it’s just the appearance. Would you want something torn or faded you know for your family members here? I feel a brand new flag every year is … necessary,” King said. “I feel deep down they know it needs to happen, but they’re going by what they were told and they’re not supposed to do it. But I don’t feel we should have any issues when it comes to the day of to try and do it.”
The Kings have already raised $2,200 toward the purchase of small American flags on a PayPal page. They’ve purchased 14,000 flags. They say they need a total of $6,500 to $7,000 to buy a total of 38,500 graves.
But they’re running out of time.
“Come Monday morning, it’ll probably be our last attempt to place an order to make it in time, so over the weekend we’re going to gather as much funding as possible,” King said. “We’re doing this for the people around us. We don’t do it for our self-pleasure. The big thing is we want to help the community as much as we can, especially in these times, and if that’s by placing flags, so be it.
“We need to make something happen.” King continued, “as much as they’re trying to take that away from us.”