ARLINGTON, Va. — There are no masks when it comes to blowing a bugle. There is no barrier permitted to obscure the words of comfort for loved ones. No covering to halt a rifle blast in honor of a comrade.
Each day at Arlington National Cemetery, services continue to remember those who have served the country. Tears flow, flags are folded, memories come alive, sobs are muffled — not from face coverings, but in quiet remembrance.
Above-ground inurnment, below-ground interment, the honored come each day to be with their brothers and sisters in service.
“Arlington National Cemetery’s mission of laying to rest our nation’s veterans and their families continues,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director, Office of Army Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery, said in a statement to TMN. “We are taking these proactive steps to protect the public, families, our service members and staff.”
There were roughly 6,290 burials in Arlington during 2019. Numbers for 2020 were not available.
Concerns of COVID-19 have prompted changes. Only 10 immediate family members are permitted to witness a ceremony. Families have the option to postpone arrangements to a later date. The regulations cover all of the roughly 140 national cemeteries — the final resting places for many military veterans and their spouses.
Before COVID-19, there were about 1,400 military funerals each day across the U.S.
On this one April day, Donald Eugene Bailey Sr. of Roanoke, Virginia, was honored with a military ceremony prior to an urn with his ashes being placed in a niche in Columbarium Court 9, rising off York Drive, between Patton and Nimitz Drives.
Specialist 5 Bailey, 71, served in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1974. He was awarded the Vietnam Campaign Medal and Vietnam Service Medal.
Members of the 3d U.S. Infantry, traditionally known as “The Old Guard,” conducted the memorial service. The Old Guard is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, serving since 1784.
“Step apart” comes the command, as the six-person honor guard positioned itself ‘round the remains. “Unfold” comes the next command, as a U.S flag slowly is spread open, barely moving in the soft morning chill above Mr. Bailey’s remains.
Off to the left, the burglar stood and softly played the “Taps” of his goodbye and welcome. Three volleys of seven shots each are fired into the air by the riflemen to the right.
“No place at Arlington National Cemetery can be purchased,” Chaplin Eric Bryan says, his mask lowered for the moment. “It must be earned.
“In life, he honored this flag. Now, this flag honors him,” he says.
As one of the adjustments the folded flag is placed on a small table near relatives, to be picked up. In the past, it was handed directly to a relative.
The service concluded, the family and Chaplin Bryan walk to the nearby Columbarium Court 9 for final prayers. A cemetery official hands the Bailey family a small felt sack, drawstrings pulled tight, with shell casings from the earlier military salute.
Mr. Bailey’s funeral was held on the 36th day since Arlington cemetery closed to the public.
One thing at Arlington remains unchanged. Up on the hill, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the unmasked sentinel continues, marching 21 steps south, turning to face east for 21 seconds, turning north and shift weapon to the other shoulder, proceeding north for 21 steps, and repeat.
Always watching in honor.
COVID-19 does not stop that.