MARIETTA — When they heard there would be no Memorial Day ceremony at the Marietta National Cemetery this year, a group of Cobb Countians and members of veterans organizations decided to have their own.
Memorial Day events across Cobb County were canceled this year and others moved online in light of concerns over large gatherings as cases of the new coronavirus continue to climb, albeit slower than before.
Donna Rowe, an Army veteran who routinely speaks at veterans events in metro Atlanta, took to the stage late Monday morning, giving a speech to 30 or more people who had gathered. Over the next few minutes, the crowd grew in size.
The gathering was not publicized or organized by any official group.
But Jack Shields, a veteran of the post-Vietnam era, retired Marietta police officer and member of the Acworth American Legion, said he and a few others were responsible for the impromptu observance. He said they invited a few friends and family members after being disappointed that the annual Memorial Day ceremony held there had been canceled. That ceremony normally attracts hundreds to the cemetery.
Shields said the group invited members of American Legion posts, the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle group and the police department, among others.
The group marched up the cemetery’s hills holding large American flags in long lines before saying the Pledge of Allegiance, singing patriotic hymns and observing a moment of silence as taps played.
They also posted a wreath donated by Mike Whittle, owner of K. Mike Whittle Designs in Marietta, at the center of the cemetery.
The event culminated with a Memorial Day National Guard helicopter flyover of the cemetery, the last on a list of flyover locations in Forsyth, Cherokee and Cobb counties, as well as Atlanta.
Rowe, a retired Army captain who served as head emergency triage nurse at the U.S. Army’s 3rd Field Hospital in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, said regardless of the COVID-19-related closures and no matter how many people would have come to listen to her speak, she planned to honor the dead.
“Today is not for veterans. Today is for our dead, and it means so much to me because, as I said in my speech, I’ve touched the black body bags of death in war. I know what that’s like,” she said, noting that she spoke about many of the country’s wars, from WWII to the war in Iraq, as well as the lives they took. She also said her own husband had succumbed to the effects of Agent Orange, a toxic chemical used to eliminate forest cover for the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.
“For them is the reason I came here today. We served with them. We saw them die. So it means a lot to me,” she said. “This is their day for us to say thank you for my freedom and the freedom of my family and my children. ... You can cancel a holiday, but you cannot cancel honoring our dead. ... It didn’t matter to me if there were two people or 40, I came here for the ones that are down.”
Others who gathered shared her sentiment.
Marietta Police Lt. Tim Lemming served with Shields in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division as well as on the local police force. The Kennesaw resident said the virus can’t and should not stop people coming out to remember the country’s fallen.
“They need to know,” Lemming said, referring to the veterans buried at the cemetery. “They gave their lives for this place, and they need to feel boots stomping above them. Every year, there’s thousands of people walking through here, honoring them on this day. We wanted to honor them.”
As far as the concerns around COVID-19, most who attended the gathering on Monday said it wasn’t their place to speak on the issue. They said the elected officials in charge of making decisions on cancellation of events, social distancing guidelines and more would be criticized regardless of their decisions.
“We just stepped up,” Shields said.