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Bellone, volunteers lament VA’s ‘disgraceful’ decision to cancel Memorial Day flag placement efforts

The annual event that brings thousands of local Scouts and other volunteers out to Calverton National Cemetery to place flags at gravesites for Memorial Day is in jeopardy following a decision by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Mr. Bellone said he has submitted two letters urging VA secretary Robert Wilkie to allow for local control of flag placement with an assurance that social distancing guidelines will be adhered to. To date, the VA is not allowing flag placement.

“I cannot understand for the life of me why the VA is not allowing the local community at the national cemeteries to do flag placement where the local health department is certifying that we are meeting all safety requirements,” the county executive said during his media briefing Saturday.

Frank Bailey of Middle Island, the volunteer flag placement coordinator for Calverton, said prior to the decision a plan had already been put in place to cancel the usual ceremony, but to still have Scouts and other volunteers place flags at the sites in an organized fashion that would ensure no one has contact with anyone else.

Mr. Bailey, who noted that the flag placement efforts started more than 25 years ago, described the process as a “well-oiled machine.” He said he doesn’t think VA officials in Washington, D.C., fully understand how organized the process is in Suffolk County.

Recognizing the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, Mr. Bailey said each volunteer would have been assigned specific rows in one section of the cemetery. They would have been instructed to wait in their cars until exactly 9:30 a.m. the day of placement and to head straight home after completing their rows. He estimated the whole process would take no more than 45 minutes.

“I’m disappointed in the decision,” Mr. Bailey said. “I think it’s disgraceful.”

Spread out across more than 1,000 acres, Calverton National Cemetery features more than 215,000 grave sites.

“You couldn’t be more socially distanced,” Mr. Bailey said of the space at the sprawling national cemetery, the largest in the U.S.

In addition to Calverton, there is also Pinelawn National Cemetery in Farmingdale, which will be forced to cancel its annual flag placement.

Mr. Bellone, who made an appearance on Fox News this weekend to express his frustration with the VA’s decision, said Suffolk is home to more veterans than any county in New York and called Memorial Day a “very important day.”

“We have to figure out ways to appropriately honor them even with the COVID-19 crisis,” he said, adding that it’s particularly important to use the day to teach youngsters about the sacrifice made by members of the armed forces who lost their lives in service of their country.

Mr. Bellone said he has requested that the VA donate a portion of the flags that would normally be placed at Calverton to instead be used at private cemeteries. On Friday, the county executive’s office released a list of other cemeteries where volunteers will place flags this week, including St. John the Evangelist R.C. Cemetery in Riverhead, First Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Southold and Our Lady of the Isle Cemetery in the Village of Dering Harbor on Shelter Island.