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The American Legion Post 5 honor guard fires a volley at Locust Ridge Cemetery in Brattleboro on May 25.

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A subdued, but powerful, tribute

American Legion Post 5 finds a way to honor the fallen on a Memorial Day in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic

BRATTLEBORO—The pattern of Memorial Day here has varied little over the years

An honor guard comprised of members of the town’s veterans organizations makes the rounds of the local cemeteries and memorials in the early morning, then comes back to the Town Common for a service just before noon in the front of the town’s memorial to its war dead from the 20th century.

After the service, the veterans and their families and friends and neighbors usually adjourns to American Legion Post 5 for lunch.

However, like so many other events in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, even the annual remembrance of Brattleboro’s fallen had to conform to the new norms of masks, physical distancing, and prohibitions of large public gatherings.

Instead, the day was stripped to its core.

The public service on the Common and the luncheon afterward were canceled this year. No long speeches. No bands. Just the time-honored subdued and simple gestures of honor and respect by the living toward the dead.

On Monday, the American Legion Post 5 honor guard started at the south end of town at with stops at St. Michael’s Parish Cemetery and the Civil War Monument at Prospect Hill Cemetery.

They then went downtown to the Kyle Gilbert Memorial Bridge, and up Main Street and Putney Road to the Vermont Veterans Memorial Bridge at the mouth of the West River.

With each stop came a brief prayer by Post 5 Chaplin Mike Leclaire, a rifle volley by the honor guard, and the playing of taps by Post 5 bugler Don Strange.

The next-to-last stop was the veterans’ section of Locust Ridge Cemetery on Black Mountain Road.

Here is where Gilbert, a member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who was killed in action in Iraq in 2003, is buried. He lies not far from the graves of Brattleboro’s service members who served during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

The solemn circuit was completed on the Common, at the granite monument listing the names of the town’s fallen in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Beyond the participants in the ceremony, only a dozen or so people were in attendance, masked and appropriately distanced.

In lieu of a formal speech, former Post 5 Commander and Air Force Officer John Hagen offered some brief remarks.

He spoke of the long line from Crispus Attucks, a dock worker shot by English soldiers in the Boston Massacre in 1770 who is considered the first casualty of the American Revolution, to Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Diego Pongo and Marine Corps Capt. Moises Navas, who were killed in a firefight with gunmen from the Islamic State in northern Iraq in March of this year.

“With a pandemic quarantine in full force [in California], thousands participated in a car parade in Simi Valley to honor Gunnery Sgt. Pongo,” Hagen said.

In the 250 years between the deaths of Attucks on the streets of Boston to the deaths of Longo and Navas, more than 1.5 million Americans have died while serving their country, he noted.

But Hagen cautioned against “a temptation to focus on the scale of the numbers,” such as the 100,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 so far this year. Instead, “Meaning is found when we focus instead on the names and the lives of the individuals that we have lost,” he said.

He gave as an example the name of Mike Trombley, a Navy veteran and Post 5 member who served on nuclear submarines during the Cold War and then spent his professional career in the nuclear power industry, including helping to build the Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon.

“Mike was also a member of our Tuesday morning veterans coffee group,” Hagen said. “Mike passed away on April 28 from COVID-19. His departure leaves a hole in our Legion, and in his family.”

Trombley is one of three Windham County residents who died of the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The other lesson to be learned, Hagen said, “is about what we owe to each other.”

“If we are truly honoring the sacrifices of service members, we have to recognize our individual obligations to our communities,” he said. “Our current sacrifices are not so demanding, simply to wear a face mask and to act in ways that do not put others at risk — small actions that affirm a duty to each other, connected to the duty of those we honor today.”

That sentiment was echoed by Leclaire, who in his prayer on the Common, asked everyone to “look beyond the graves, the tombstones, and see their lives. Lives of people that you and I loved.”

“Along with our entire country, we pause, we reflect, we pay tribute, and we honor all who have gone on before us,” he said.

Even in the shadow of a pandemic, the members of Post 5 were still able to pause, reflect, and pay tribute.

”We really wanted to make sure there was some kind of ceremony today,” said outgoing Post 5 Commander Tom Costello, a decorated Marine Corps combat officer in Vietnam. “It is important that we don’t forget these guys.”

The incoming Post 5 commander, current vice-commander and Cold War veteran Dave Finlayson, said he, Costello, and other Post 5 members had been working since the end of March to figure out how they could carry on the traditions of Memorial Day in the face of a deadly pandemic.

“Even one week out, we still weren’t sure whether the town would give us a permit,” Finlayson said. “In the end, they gave us the go-ahead and we were able to put this together over the weekend.”

“It’s not perfect,” Finlayson said. “But the main thing is not to lose track of the people who’ve passed.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #563 (Wednesday, May 27, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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