Like the former helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army that he is, Michael Brophy embarked on a mission Monday.
Pandemic or no pandemic, he was determined to hold a Memorial Day service to honor the men and women who have given their lives for their country in the past — and who continue to do so today.
“I didn’t want people to think that because of the coronavirus, we had just given up,” said Brophy, director of the historic Baltimore National Cemetery complex in Catonsville.
“Far from it.”
It didn’t matter that the pandemic had ushered in social distancing restrictions that made it impossible to perform the 2020 ceremony with all the pomp and circumstance that has characterized previous years’ events.
Normally, each of the 47,000 gravestones in the Baltimore area’s three nationally run veterans’ cemeteries would have been been decorated with a miniature American flag — the handiwork of up to 2,000 volunteers.
On other Memorial Days that Brophy has presided over, there would be a drum and bugle corps, remarks made by the state’s top elected officials and a 21-gun salute. An honor guard would have placed the memorial wreath at the base of the complex’s flagpole with formal precision. Approximately 150 observers would have stood silent, their hands held over their hearts.
”Memorial Day is usually one of the best days of our year,” Brophy said.
“Those of us work for Veterans Affairs honor our servicemen and women every single day. What’s wonderful about Memorial Day is that it’s the day when the public comes out to join us.“
The coronavirus pandemic did away with all of that.
To comply with restrictions against large gatherings, the 2020 service was closed to all but a few invited observers. In attendance were Brophy, half a dozen cemetery employees, a volunteer bugler, a newspaper reporter and one television camera crew. No one wore a military uniform.
From start to finish, the event took less than 15 minutes, while the avenue of flags lining the main drive that is erected for ceremonial occasions flapped gaily in the breeze.
”There were a lot of things we couldn’t do this year in the interests of public safety,” said Brophy, a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I decided that the important thing isn’t what we can’t do. It’s what we can do.”
Earlier Monday, Brophy and a team of employees observed a moment of silence and then placed ceremonial wreaths at veterans’ cemeteries in Baltimore’s Loudon Park and in Annapolis. Miniature American flags were planted at the end of each row of graves and in front of individual burial sites for Medal of Honor recipients.
The military cemetery in Catonsville is too vast for even these token observances, Brophy said, so he planned a small service for that site.
Volunteer bugler Connor Wright performed a sorrowful and lingering rendition of “Taps” while standing in a field of white gravestones. The observers recited the Pledge of Allegiance, affirming their loyalty not just to the flag but to the people who fought for it. In place of the traditional gun salute there was the hoarse cawing of crows.
Speaking from the podium, Brophy urged members of the public to write a tribute message or share a memory of a former member of the armed services at Veterans Legacy Memorial, a new website at vlm.cem.va.gov.
”This is the least we can do to honor our heroes who have fallen,” he said.
He then made it clear that for him, ”fallen heroes” includes civilian medical personnel who have succumbed to COVID-19 while caring for sick patients. In Maryland, the virus has infected over 47,000 people and killed over 2,100.
”They, too, have given their lives to help the rest of us,” he said. “Let us never forget their sacrifice.”
After the ceremony, Brophy said that he is in awe of the doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and aides who show up for work every day in U.S. hospitals. Unlike soldiers, he said, medical personnel didn’t voluntarily sign up to risk their lives on the front lines. Unlike soldiers, he said, they weren’t trained in battle techniques.
“Time and time again, they have risen to the occasion,” he said.
“When I see the feats of heroism they perform every day, it makes me proud of our country. We are meeting this challenge. We are holding together as a society.
”I think we’ll look back on this time and and be proud that we were chosen to make this sacrifice.”