Each year in March, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean hosts veterans and active duty service members for a ceremony called the Reunion of Honor. Along with their Japanese counterparts, these current and former members of the Marine Corps and Navy have met there nearly every year since 1980 to remember their fallen friends and comrades.
That island is Iwo Jima. This year marks the 75th anniversary of that decisive 37-day battle, which ended with the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest point, and helped to turn the tide of World War II in the Pacific. Nearly 7,000 American soldiers lost their lives on Iwo Jima’s volcanic sands, and 20,000 more were wounded.
This year’s 75th anniversary ceremony was scheduled to be even bigger than normal. More than 20 living veterans of the battle were expected to attend, all of whom are in their nineties.
But things this year have been far from normal. The 2020 Reunion of Honor was canceled over concerns about the coronavirus, and we have had to look for other ways to pay our respects.
Grand Island resident Ed Slips is one of the many Nebraskans who fought at Iwo Jima. He celebrated his 97th birthday on May 5, just a few weeks before Memorial Day. When asked whether Ed was a hero, his daughter-in-law, Terry Slips, said, “To me, the definition of hero is doing something [when] you don’t know what you’re going to get out of it, but doing it because it’s the right thing to do. And that’s what he did. And that’s what all the military personnel do.”
I couldn’t agree more. This year, as we do every year, we come together on Memorial Day to honor our fallen soldiers – to pay tribute to the Americans who have lost their lives fighting for our country, not just at Iwo Jima, but throughout our history.
But as COVID-19 continues to upset the balance of our national life, many of the Memorial Day events that take place annually across our state have been canceled as well.
Not surprisingly, Nebraskans are finding new and creative ways to commemorate this holiday. The Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs is holding a social distancing-compliant ceremony, which is said to be “Nebraska’s largest Memorial Day celebration with the fewest people present in the room.” From 8:00am to 8:00pm on Memorial Day, they invite Nebraskans and all Americans to join them virtually for a live stream from the Nebraska Capitol Rotunda.
Gold Star parents Monica and Mel Alexander will light a candle in the Rotunda at 8:00am and extinguish it at 8:00pm in honor of their son, Matthew Alexander, who was killed in Iraq in 2007. Honor Guard Sentinels from many of Nebraska’s veteran service organizations will take turns watching over the candle in 30-minute shifts.
And the Nebraska-based photographic war memorial Remembering Our Fallen, which travels the country honoring the men and women of our military who have lost their lives since 9/11, will return to outside Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, where it got its start three years ago. The couple behind the project, Bill and Evonne Williams, were originally scheduled to take the memorial to Phoenix, Arizona, for Memorial Day, but decided to stay closer to home in light of the coronavirus.
Memorial Day may look a little different this year, but I am glad to see that Nebraskans are still finding ways to honor our fallen heroes. Even during this COVID-19 pandemic, we can all take a moment to pause and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice these brave Americans made for our freedom. Let us honor them in our own way.