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National cemeteries plan brief, private ceremonies for Memorial Day

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National cemeteries will open from dawn to dusk on Memorial Day, but the usual events to honor deceased service members will be brief and closed to the public.

The Department of Veterans Affairs issued guidelines Wednesday about how its 142 national cemeteries should observe Memorial Day, which is May 25. The cemeteries will open for people to visit gravesites, but visitors are asked to distance themselves. The VA is urging people to visit on the Friday, Saturday or Sunday before the holiday to avoid crowds on Memorial Day.

During a typical year, the day is marked with large public gatherings to honor fallen veterans and service members. There are wreath-laying ceremonies, and flags are placed at each gravesite. This year, there will be no flag placements.

The VA advised each national cemetery to hold a brief wreath-laying ceremony, which will include a moment of silence and the playing of Taps. Though the cemeteries will be open, the ceremonies will be closed to the public. Some of them will appear on livestream on the National Cemetery Administration’s social media pages.

“This year, by necessity, will be different from past Memorial Day observances,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. “While the department can’t hold large public ceremonies, VA will still honor veterans and service members with the solemn dignity and respect they have earned through their service and sacrifice.”

Wilkie plans to preside over the ceremony at Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia, and Pamela Powers, the VA’s acting deputy secretary, will go to Culpeper National Cemetery in Virginia. Randy Reeves, who leads the National Cemetery Administration, will attend the ceremony at the Riverside National Cemetery in California on May 22 and travel to Calverton National Cemetery in New York on May 25.

Arlington National Cemetery, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army, remains closed to the public. Family pass holders are allowed access to visit gravesites, but they can’t congregate in groups of 10 or more and are expected to wear facemasks. The cemetery is expected to issue guidance this week about its plans for Memorial Day. Typically, U.S. presidents participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington and deliver speeches.

Last month, organizers canceled a Memorial Day motorcycle rally in the nation’s capital that was intended to replace the popular Rolling Thunder event. Rolling Thunder, a 32-year-old tradition, attracted hundreds of thousands of participants every Memorial Day weekend. AMVETS planned a similar event, Rolling to Remember, for the weekend of May 23.

Instead of the in-person ride and rally, AMVETS asked motorcyclists to ride 22 miles on May 24 in their local communities, while following social distancing guidelines. The 22 miles recognizes an often-cited statistic that 22 veterans die by suicide every day. Participants can download a phone app titled “REVER” to track and share their ride.


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California state veterans’ homes hold COVID-19 infections to single digits

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Just three residents of California state veterans’ home have contracted COVID-19 and only two have died, a sharp contrast to what’s transpired in similar long-term care facilities in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country. The California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) thorough preparation and early response is being credited for helping prevent the highly contagious virus from infecting more of the 2,100 veterans who live in the state’s eight homes.

State veterans’ homes appear to have been hit especially hard by the outbreak. But a lack of comprehensive data about COVID-19 infections in federal, state and private nursing homes makes it difficult to compare how each is handling the infections. In addition, the residents of state veterans’ homes are primarily men – who appear to be more susceptible to the virus – and often have other health issues.

Nearly 140 residents of New Jersey’s trio of state veterans’ homes have died as a result of COVID-19 infections, 76 at the Paramus facility alone. The Long Island State Veterans Home in New York reported 68 deaths as of Tuesday. And the deaths of more than 70 at the Holyoke Soldier’s Home in Massachusetts has prompted federal and state investigations.

In addition, four Democratic U.S. senators asked the Government Accountability Office to review VA’s oversight of state veterans’ homes last week in light of a 2019 GAO report that recommended the agency improve its efforts. “The recent deaths of veteran residents and other care challenges at State Veterans Homes during the COVID-19 public health emergency remind us that VA’s implementation of these recommendations would contribute toward improved care quality at these facilities nationwide and better inform veterans and their families about the best care options,” the letter stated. “While VA does not supervise or control the administration of State Veterans Homes, VA pays for veterans to receive care at these facilities and is the only entity that inspects every SVH in the nation.”

Long-term care facilities have been coronavirus-infection hot spots since the first major outbreak surfaced at a private nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., in late February. Today, between a third and half of the nearly 86,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States have occurred in nursing homes run by private companies, states and the federal government. The problem is so acute that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services is set to require nursing homes to report all COVID-19 infections to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Low pay for staff, who often work at multiple facilities may have contributed to transmitting the virus between nursing homes, according to Robyn Grant of The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care. Infection control problems, which have been among the top 10 problems identified during federal nursing home inspections for several years -- and were the No.1 issue in 2019 – likely exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus, Grant says. A lack of masks, gloves and disposable gowns has also made it difficult to prevent or contain infections.

“We know (for-profit) nursing homes are short on registered nurses because they are trying to save money,” says Charlene Harrington, professor emerita of nursing and sociology in the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing who has studied nursing homes for 30 years. “Registered nurses are the ones who develop infection control plans, they have to assess patients, they oversee the isolation protocol and supervise the care staff. If you don’t have them, you aren’t able to mount an effective campaign to control the virus.”

A shortage of personal protective equipment has been an issue throughout the pandemic. The Long Island State Veterans Home turned to a painting company for mask donations in early April. CalVet has received donations of masks from businesses and private citizens. And South Korea is donating a half a million masks to VA, the agency announced Tuesday.

The private nursing home industry is lobbying for $10 billion in federal aid to pay for personal protective equipment, staff and testing, according to a May 6 letter the American Health Care Association sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Any aid should come with strict conditions, Harrington says “They have been pulling so much money out of their nursing homes that they don’t have the reserves to do what they need to do,” she says. “If they are going to give nursing homes money, they should have really strong protections to make sure they are financially accountable.”

States are also asking for help. California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado have joined forces to ask Congress for $1 trillion in COVID-19 relief funds. The money would fund public health programs, law enforcement and schools, according to the Los Angeles Times.

More than 100 residents of Pennsylvania’s six state veterans’ homes have tested positive for COVID-19, with 28 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and 11 probable COVID-19 deaths.

“The majority of the approximately 1,300 residents we care for in our six Veterans Homes are predominantly older and many have multiple complex health conditions which make them particularly susceptible to coronavirus,” said Joan Nissley, communications director at the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “With an average age of around 80 years old, it is not uncommon for a resident to pass away during their time at a home. We greatly respect and honor these true American heroes in life and in death. We continue to be vigilant in our infection prevention and control plans and remain dedicated in doing everything we can to stop the spread of this virus.”

In New Jersey, meanwhile, National Guard medics and VA nurses have been assisting at the state veterans’ homes, where residents and staff alike have been stricken by the virus. “This is a global pandemic that has far-reaching impacts,” said Kryn Westhoven, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “Our homes are no more immune to it than the rest of the community. Given that our population is especially vulnerable because of age and pre-existing conditions, the homes are doing everything in their power to ensure we curtail and mitigate the spread of the virus. Our Paramus and Menlo Park homes in particular are located in some of the hardest hit areas in the state.”

Some states appear to have done remarkably well combatting COVID-19. There have been 22 resident infections and seven deaths at Oregon’s two state veterans homes. Washington reports 47 infections and eight deaths among the residents of its four veterans’ homes. But California stands out given that it has the nation’s fifth-highest number of COVID -19 cases per capita, according to the Los Angeles Times.

CalVet is run by Dr. Vito Imbasciani, a 27-year veteran of the Army Medical Corps, whose father served with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. Three uncles served in Europe during the war and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. The department’s director of long-term care is Thomas Bucci, an Air Force veteran who had decades of health-care administration experience before joining CalVet.

Imbasciani and Bucci drafted a 38-point plan for dealing with a possible COVID-19 outbreak in mid-February, weeks before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, and they have continued to add to that blueprint. The extensive advance preparations included making sure California’s state veterans homes had an ample supply of masks, gloves and gowns for staff. By late February, visitors were required to use hand-washing stations set up at the main entrance of each veterans home before entering the building. And on March 15, CalVet closed the homes to all visitors except for families with loved ones in hospice care.

In a note to families the day before suspending visitor access, Imbasciani acknowledged the stress the decision would cause and promised nursing home staff would help families stay in contact with residents by assisting with video calls via cell phone or laptop. “I don’t take this decision lightly, but as a physician, I know it is medically necessary,” he wrote of the closure. “I ask for your patience and understanding and hope you know that every step we are taking is to keep you and your loved ones safe.”


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Georgia post saves fellow Legionnaire from homelessness

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More than 20 years ago, William Bolton lost his wife to breast cancer. Since that time, the Vietnam Air Force veteran has been paying off medical bills, surviving on a limited income, and living wherever he can find shelter. A small Volkswagen was about to be Bolton’s new living arrangements, a space that would have been “awfully uncomfortable at the age of 71,” he said. Thankfully, Thomas M. Brady Inc. American Legion Post 45 in Canton, Ga., stepped in “and made a difference in my life.”

Bolton will have permanent shelter in his new tiny home.

Post 45 recently gifted Bolton – a Paid Up for Life member of Post 316 in nearby Woodstock, Ga. – with the tiny home that was made possible by the efforts of Legionnaires, Blessed Trinity Christian High School in Roswell, a Home Depot Foundation grant and community support.

Bolton “was the perfect recipient for us to give it to,” said Jim Lindenmayer, service officer for Post 45 and director of the Cherokee County Homeless Veterans Program (an affiliated nonprofit of Post 45 made up of 100 percent volunteers).

Last summer Lindenmayer was notified that students from Blessed Trinity Christian High School were in the process of building a tiny house and wanted to donate it to a homeless veteran through the CCHVP. However, the students needed funds to complete the project.

CCHVP works closely with Habitat for Humanity and the Home Depot Foundation, fulfilling about 10 projects a year for veterans in need of home repairs with grants from the Home Depot Foundation – in 2019 alone the program received about $100,000 in grants. So CCHVP was able to secure a Home Depot grant and other financial assistance from the community for Post 45 to build the tiny house that features a loft for a bed, bathroom, living area, and a kitchen with appliances such as a stove and refrigerator.

When it came time to gift the tiny home to a homeless veteran, one couldn’t be identified due to restrictions in place – the home was not permitted to be in Cherokee County. “We were trying to find the right veteran to get it,” Lindenmayer said. And that’s when Post 45 learned that Bolton, who owned an acre of land in a county north of Cherokee, was getting evicted from his current residence. CCHVP went through Bolton’s qualifications and said, “This is the guy we want to give it to. It’s perfect for him,” Lindenmayer said.

Bolton is waiting on the permit so the tiny home can be placed on his land, along with water and sewer hookup. When Bolton learned that he was going to be able to live on his own land, which he had on the market to sell for a few years, “I thought that was wonderful. It will make for my old age to live comfortable,” said Bolton, who is currently living with some friends. “This means everything. I will be able to enjoy life again.”

Bolton said he’s appreciative of Post 45’s generosity and the efforts of Lindenmayer in making the tiny home possible for him. For Lindenmayer, it was about giving Bolton “a house of his own.”

The tiny home is just one of the many ways that Post 45 and CCHVP supports veterans in the community.

Post 45 provides transportation and housing needs

Two years ago Lindenmayer met a 100-percent service-connected disabled veteran, with a wife and two kids, whose 20-year-old car quit running and he couldn’t afford a new one. By fate Lindenmayer received a call from a veteran who had a 1995 car with 195,000 miles that he and his wife were no longer using and wanted to donate it to a veteran in need of one. The opportunity to provide reliable transportation sparked the idea for Post 45 to implement a vehicle donation program for veterans that need it most. Since that time, Post 45 has donated 16 vehicles to qualified veterans – those who are honorably discharged and at least 70 percent VA service-connected disabled or former homeless veterans who have overcome their situation and are now back on their feet.

Last month, the program gave two cars to veterans. One was given to Darius Roy, a Navy veteran who recently transitioned out of the military and has been without a car for years. But he needed transportation to get to work and take his daughter to school.

"When you have somebody like The American Legion who comes and steps in and helps you make that transition once you get out of the service it’s definitely a blessing," Roy said.

Lindenmayer said about 80 percent of the used vehicles given to the program – which are retitled to Post 45 through the DMV – are from other veterans. All vehicles received by the post for donation are sent to a local mechanic, who is a veteran, for inspection and repairs if needed. Then, the vehicles are sold to veterans for $1.

“People know that if they have a need they call us, and we do it for them,” Lindenmayer said. “This is what we do about giving back … this is what we’re supposed to do is take care of veterans and the Legion should be in front of this and that’s what we’re doing.”

Lindenmayer said most vehicle donations have been to formerly homeless veterans, including one to a homeless Navy veteran who was walking to and from his Walmart job nightly for over a year.

Lindenmayer said the veteran has to have a valid driver’s license, pay for the car tax, insurance, and basic needs.

Post 45 and CCHVP’s furniture donation program is similar to the vehicle donation program where veterans and non-veterans donate unused furniture to other veterans in need. The moving company Two Men and a Truck heard what the post was doing and wanted to provide moving fees for free.

The program has been underway for only four months but in that short amount of time they have already moved 20 families and provided furniture to house the homes.

Furniture donated is dropped off at Post 45 or it’s picked up from the donor and given to the veteran family that needs it. Lindenmayer said furniture donated is veterans giving to veterans. “That’s what they want to do. They want to donate it to another veteran, and we’re happy to make sure it gets to another veteran.

“We do a lot here in the community. And we’re making life-changing donations.”


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American Legion Family encourages creativity for poppy distribution days

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The American Legion Family’s annual poppy distributions – which raise funds for disabled veterans, military personnel and their families to honor of all who fought and died for the nation – are likely to be different in most communities this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic and local restrictions.

“We understand it’s difficult this year for American Legion Family volunteers to distribute poppies as they normally would at storefronts and special events,” American Legion Auxiliary National President Nicole Clapp and American Legion National Commander James W. “Bill” Oxford said in a joint statement. “It’s important to know that the Legion and Auxiliary national organizations encourage distributions, but at the same time we also ask volunteers to heed local officials’ directives on social distancing.

“The red poppy is a sacred symbol to remind us, as we head into Memorial Day, of those who gave their lives for our freedoms,” the commander and president added. “Their sacrifices cannot be forgotten this year, so it’s going to take some creativity and innovation to conduct local National Poppy Day® events May 22 and distributions over Memorial Day weekend.”

The American Legion Family offers some ideas for members to conduct poppy distributions in their communities, given the circumstances:

• Invite the public to a drive-by Poppy Day celebration at your American Legion post home, to include balloons and patriotic-themed giveaways ready to present, along with poppies.

• Offer veterans and their families red poppies when making Buddy Check calls.

• If your local post, unit or Sons of the American Legion squadron is conducting food-delivery services, consider distributing poppies at the same time, in exchange for voluntary donations. Volunteers can use social media to announce the distributions for those who would like to donate.

• Attend the virtual National Poppy Day® event via the American Legion Auxiliary National Headquarters’ Facebook watch party on May 22 at noon EDT. Visit Facebook.com/alaforveterans for more information.

• Share on social media American Legion videos featuring Past National Commander John P. “Jake” Comer reciting “In Flanders Fields,” the World War I poem that made the red poppy the official flower of remembrance; and “We Shall Keep the Faith,” Moina Michael’s poem in response to “In Flanders Fields,” recited by American Legion Past National Commander and American Legion Auxiliary member Denise Rohan. Links to the videos can be found at www.legion.org/poppyday.

• Add to a worldwide virtual poppy garden on Instagram by posting poppy images and using the hashtag #poppyday

• If local directives make poppy distributions impossible or too difficult to succeed this month, consider hosting a beefed-up poppy event later in the year, after restrictions are lifted.

For more information, visit the American Legion Family National Poppy Day® web platform at legion.org/poppyday.

“Now, more than ever, American Legion Family volunteers should continue being a strong, visible force in their communities during these potentially isolating times of COVID-19,” the national president and national commander said. “Let’s unite the public and show them how much our veterans and current servicemembers mean to us. And when someone asks you about the poppy’s meaning, tell them, ‘For over a century, The American Legion Family has asserted that those brave men and women who wear the uniform, especially those who died in battle, will not be forgotten.”


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'We're happy to do this for our comrades'

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Since March 26, George P. Vanderveer American Legion Post 129 in Toms River, N.J., has been teaming up with another local nonprofit and a food pantry to provide hundreds of hot meals and critical supplies weekly to those in need, including local veterans.

For Post 129 Finance Officer Ralph Wolff, it was evident early on during the coronavirus pandemic there would be a need for the effort. And Wolff and others in the post’s American Legion Family wanted to be the ones that filled the need.

“Knowing that unemployment (benefits) were going to be held up for some individuals (and) the stimulus checks were going to be held up, I knew that our veterans would be without funds,” Wolff said. “We started this a little bit ahead of the curve. We did not want our veterans to experience food insecurity. We wanted them to come to a place where if they had to ask for food, they could do it with honor and dignity. We all know each other (at Post 129).”

The state’s largest post at around 1,700 Legionnaires and 2,500 American Legion Family members, Post 129 has been working with the organization A Need We Feed, which works with area restaurants to provide meals for veterans, children and families who are in need. The meals are picked by I Need We Feed volunteers and delivered to the post, which in turn donates money back to I Need We Feed to pay the restaurants.

“It’s a cycle,” Wolff said. “The other benefit is it keeps the restaurants in business and gives them a cash flow.”

Working with the food bank Fulfill, the post also is able to distribute crisis boxes consisting of enough non-perishable foods to sustain someone for three to four days. The post also gets fresh fruit and vegetables to distribute as well, along with paper products.

Members of the Legion Family pack up all of the supplies and food, and the post conducts two meal and supply distributions a week, following strict social distancing guidelines. Post 129 Legion Family members wear masks and load the meals and supplies into the cars that line up at the post.

In a month and a half, Post 129 has distributed 1,284 meals, 992 rolls of paper towel, 4,048 rolls of toilet paper, 295 crisis boxes, 1,000 oranges, and hundreds of pounds of additional fruits and vegetables.

In addition to veterans, the post has provided food and supplies to anyone else in need, first responders and health-care professionals. If there are leftovers meals, they don’t stay unused for long.

“We send them off to the fire department or the police department,” Wolff said. “Last Thursday we had 200 meals. We took 30 of them over to the emergency room at the (Community Medical Center). We took another to the police department. Anything left doesn’t go to waste.”

The reactions from those who have benefited from the post’s efforts have been that of thanks. “They are so grateful that we were able to take even the smallest burden off of them, even cooking their own meal,” Wolff said. “The thing about it is these are nutritious meals. The nutrition in these meals will help sustain their immunity systems. People with weak immunity systems are the most likely to get the virus.

“Most of our veterans are of the Vietnam era. They’re older,” Wolff said. “If I can keep just one of them from going to the grocery store … and keep them safe. That’s what I want to do. That’s what we’re here for. We’re happy to do this for our comrades.”


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