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Memorial Day tradition carries on in Las Vegas amid pandemic

Updated May 25, 2020 - 8:29 am

On a typical Friday before Memorial Day, retired Army Lt. Steve Seiden would have had hundreds of veterans and volunteers helping him plant flags on the gravestones of the fallen.

But this year, it was just Seiden and 10 other members of the Jewish War Veterans Post 64 who planted about 130 miniature U.S. flags at Bunkers’ Eden Vale Memorial Park cemetery in Las Vegas, as they have done for the past 15 years.

“It dresses up the whole cemetery,” Seiden said of the flag planting, adjusting his camo-style face mask while gripping a stockpile of flags with his blue-gloved hands. “This year is very awkward, very difficult. But it’s a tradition, and we’re honoring veterans that deserve it.”

Seiden also is president of the Kline Veterans Fund, a nonprofit that provides financial support to needy veterans.

Typically, this is a busy time for the Jewish War Veterans post, as members usually conduct one of their annual poppy drives to raise money. But like many other events planned around the Memorial Day weekend, it was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

So were annual flag planting and wreath-laying ceremonies at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City and the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Fernley.

Instead, the state Department of Veterans Services on Friday morning posted two videos from the cemeteries on its website, veterans.nv.gov, showing veterans and family members, from World War II to present day, placing flowers and other tokens of respect at the final resting places of veterans.

The videos also feature the placing of a wreath by Gov. Steve Sisolak at the Battle Born Memorial in Carson City and the playing of taps at the end.

“Not even a pandemic will stop us from honoring those who served and sacrificed for our country. While we may be physically separated from each other, sharing the tradition of honoring those who gave their lives for our freedom brings us closer together in spirit,” Sisolak wrote in a statement.

The department plans to release two more videos Monday of each veterans cemetery conducting a brief wreath laying ceremony, accompanied by a moment of silence and the playing of taps.

There are some recurring public Memorial Day events scheduled for Monday, but they have been scaled back.

Former Army Sgt. Roger Henning of American Legion Post 76 said about 300 people attended or participated in the post’s annual ceremony at Lake Sahara South Park last year.

For the 18th annual event this year, at 9:30 a.m., organizers will cut the program from an hour to 15 minutes and limit participation to fewer than 10 people. They will be putting up barriers to separate ceremony participants from bystanders, who will be asked to practice social distancing.

“We downsized dramatically,” Henning said, noting that the color guard will be just four people.

The World War II veteran who started the tradition, Jack Ford, will still place a wreath on the water — a Navy tradition — but other parts of the ceremony, such as the flag posting and flag folding — will be curtailed.

“We had to do it still, though, just so we could remember all the ones that we lost, all the ones who couldn’t come home,” Henning said. “It sort of chokes me up, when you think about the millions of Americans in the wars all the way from Revolutionary through now that have given their life to defend our way of life.”

With many other events canceled, the Las Vegas Cruisin’ Association decided to put on its first socially distant car cruise on the Strip, called Hot Rods for Heroes. About 130 cars are expected for the procession, starting at 11:30 a.m. Monday at the Las Vegas Premium Outlets South.

“I know this virus has hurt a lot of people, and Vegas is very patriotic. We should be thankful for the men and women who have served in the military,” Air Force veteran Art Kam said. “It’s about remembering the men and women who died serving the United States of America.”

At Eden Vale cemetery on Friday, 12-year-old Emma Rosenblum, whose bat mitzvah had been scheduled that day before being canceled, decided to volunteer to plant the flags as a way of giving back.

With her was a friend, Jessie Fulton, and Fulton’s grandfather, retired Army Cpl. Howard Greenspon, who shed a tear as he thought about the dozen comrades he lost in the Vietnam War.

Nearby, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mort Friedlander, one of the founders of the Kline Fund and a fellow member of the Jewish War Veterans post, stopped at the gravestone of a World War II veteran.

He said that despite the increased demand for homeless veterans services amid the pandemic, donations to the organization have gone down. They want to continue to offer services.

“We want to help veterans anyway we can. And today, the Jewish war veterans are standing down for our fallen comrades,” said the 87-year-old, who was recently told by the state Department of Veterans Services that he will be named the June Veteran of the Month.

“… We pay our honor to those who passed before us.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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