Restrictions on public gatherings to help prevent the spread of coronavirus have canceled Memorial Day celebrations across the country, but in Pitt County at least one holiday tradition has not been forgotten during the pandemic.

In the days leading up to Memorial Day, more than 130 Boys Scouts and their families paid tribute to fallen service members by placing American flags on their graves. Despite highly-publicized prohibitions against this practice at some cemeteries, Pitt District Scouts were able to carry on this time-honored tradition.

Jim Kittrell, unit commissioner with Troop 25, said reports about a Department of Veterans Affairs ban on mass flag placements, announced earlier this month, caused confusion. While the prohibition was only enacted for national cemeteries, including locations in New Bern, Raleigh and Arlington, Va., some interpreted the news to mean that Scouts would be unable to place flags on any veterans’ graves for Memorial Day.

“People were calling up and saying, ‘Did you hear this? I think it’s canceled,’” Kittrell said. “(Some reports) made it sound like that was for every cemetery everywhere. It wasn’t. It was clearly not intended that way.”

The City of Greenville owns four of the five cemeteries where Scouts place flags each year. The fifth, Pinewood Memorial Park, is owned by Wilkerson Funeral Home.

Local Scout leaders began making plans several weeks ago to preserve the annual salute to those who gave their lives for their country, but to alter the practice this year due to COVID-19. Scouts and other volunteers wore masks and worked to maintain distancing requirements recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

“Normally we do a single day, gather everybody together to place flags on a Saturday,” Kittrell said. “This time we got in touch with the unit leaders and had them assigned to certain cemeteries at different times, so they were split up.”

Kittrell said another change this year was that Scouts younger than 10 did not participate.

“We did not have the Cub Scouts to join us,” he said. “It would have been their first outing together (since gathering restrictions began in March), and it would have really been hard for them to do the social distancing.”

Scouts plan to divide into small groups again to remove the flags following Monday’s Memorial Day holiday.

“It’s something that is very important that we honor those who have served and have passed on,” Kittrell said.

Field of Honor

Over the last couple of Memorial Day holidays, hundreds of American flags waving alongside the Tar River have become a common sight in Greenville. But the 2020 Field of Honor will crop up later in the year due to coronavirus.

Sponsored by the Greenville Noon Rotary, the third annual event has been postponed until August.

“This was, in our minds, going to be the biggest year yet, and then the virus hit,” said Stephen Walsh, the club’s president-elect and chair of the Field of Honor project.

Club leaders initially thought the project, which serves as a fundraiser for area Rotary clubs and more than a half dozen other nonprofit organizations, might end up being another casualty of COVID-19.

“We have heard from quite a few people who have told us, ‘Please try and postpone it; reschedule it. Please don’t cancel.’ … With so many people, I think, not just asking for it but really needing something like this event, we figured we had to go forward.”

Field of Honor was launched nationally in 2002 as Healing Field, a 3,000-flag display as a tribute to those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. Today, Rotary clubs and other organizations host hundreds of displays across the country like the one at the Greenville Town Common to give people a chance to fly flags to honor their heroes.

“The first year we did this, I think there may have been a little bit of misunderstanding that this was geared to military folks because our opening ceremony was Memorial Day weekend,” said Walsh, who served in the U.S. Air Force for 10 years. “I think this year we’ll see a much greater number of personal heroes who are associated perhaps with health care and first responders.

“I think it’s exciting that the community will have a whole new appreciation of the definition of hero with an understanding that somebody wearing scrubs and a face mask is suddenly so much more heroic in their eyes.”

Walsh said that last year’s Field of Honor, which remained up for eight weeks, attracted a larger number of visitors than the inaugural event.

“The field was (almost) never empty,” he said. “Even late at night, people were out there.”

He believes this year’s field may draw even more interest, despite the fact that display will begin in what is traditionally the hottest month of the year.

“This could be just the event that the community needs to heal after what’s been a disaster for so may people in the form of unemployment and closed businesses and lost revenue, even worse, loved ones who are gone because of what happened,” Walsh said. “This is just the kind of healing that is needed.

“If it doesn’t happen, I think it would be quite the disappointment to many who suddenly feel that this is a new Greenville tradition.”

Field of Honor flags, which are labeled to honor heroes, are $35 each and are available at greenvilleflagfield.com. There is no charge for to view the display, scheduled for Aug. 8-Oct. 3 at the Greenville Town Common, 105 E. First St.

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com or call 329-9578.