ST PETERSBURG, Fla. — This Memorial Day, we honor more than 22,000 United States Veterans lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant impact that cemeteries are now starting to see.
At Bay Pines National Cemetery, the American flag flies at half staff not just on Memorial Day, but nearly every day.
“We currently are tracking about 680 veteran burials this fiscal year. We finished out the fiscal year in September of last year with over 1300 burials,” exclaimed Bay Pines Cemetery Director Doug Maddox, a retired Army Officer of 28 years.
That’s a 10% increase in 2021, on track for a 12% increase in 2022.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, its biggest threat was to immuno-comprised and elderly populations. Many Veterans from WWII, the Vietnam War and the Korean conflict are now elderly.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 11.3 million of the 20 million veterans nationwide were 60 years and older in 2018.
As of Memorial Day 2022, the VA’s COVID-19 database recorded more than 22,000 known COVID-19-related Veteran deaths.
“It's one thing to protect yourself against oncoming gunfire or a rocket attack or something of that nature. It's totally different, When you're met with an unseen enemy, that looks to take your life,” Maddox explained.
The newest burials at Bay Pines are marked with temporary plaques, many are dated with deaths from 2020.
The VA paused most ceremonies and burials during the height of the pandemic, so cemeteries like Bay Pines are just now starting to see the impact as more families schedule ceremonies.
“The pandemic was just terrible. I think it turned to everybody, no matter who you are, it turned everybody's life upside down,” said Ronald Lorde, a retired US Marine of 16 years who was visiting his wife at the cemetery who passed away in 2009.
“Just like my wife and I planned on growing old and getting old together and dying at the same time, but it doesn't work out that way sometimes,” he exclaimed.
There’s no question the pandemic has proven that tomorrow is promised to no one, and this Memorial Day, it’s perhaps more important than ever to say thank you to our Veterans.
“If you see a Veteran, reach out to them, tell them 'thank you. We appreciate your honor. We appreciate your sacrifice. We appreciate all you've done to protect our freedoms.' That is the greatest gift that any human being can give to a Veteran,” Maddox stressed.
More than 43,000 Veterans and their loved ones are buried at Bay Pines. If you’d like to support, you can attend the cemetery’s Unaccompanied Veteran Ceremonies every first Tuesday of the month at 3 p.m. They are open to the public.