Memorial Day a new way. Veterans and Gold Star families encourage simple, safe commemoration

The annual ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery goes virtual for the first time due to the pandemic.
Romulo "Romy" Camargo, retired Army Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer, poses for a portrait with his wife, Gabriela Camargo at the Stay in Step brain spinal cord injury recovery center, which they both run.
Romulo "Romy" Camargo, retired Army Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer, poses for a portrait with his wife, Gabriela Camargo at the Stay in Step brain spinal cord injury recovery center, which they both run. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published May 24, 2020|Updated May 24, 2020

Taking a moment of silence. Leaving an empty place-setting at the table. Putting up an American flag. Tampa Bay veterans and families of fallen service members suggest these small and safe ways to commemorate this year’s Memorial Day in the midst of a pandemic.

People traditionally would gather for ceremonies at national cemeteries and veteran memorials, but social-distancing restrictions have moved such events online and led to other ways to remember the men and women who gave their lives in service.

“It’s part of our history,” said Romulo “Romy” Camargo, of Tampa.

Camargo, a retired chief warrant officer in the Army Special Forces, was featured in the 2015 National Memorial Day concert televised by the Public Broadcasting Service. His story of perseverance will be told once again in this year’s PBS broadcast at 8 p.m. on Sunday.

On September 16, 2008, during an ambush on his third deployment to Afghanistan, Camargo was shot in the back of the neck. As part of his lengthy recovery, he and his wife, Gabriella, opened the Stay In Step Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center in Tampa, which helps veterans and civilians alike get the long-term rehabilitation they need.

For Camargo, commemorating fallen service members remains important, even during the global health crisis.

“It’s to show the world that we’re still united,” he said.

Local American Legion posts are offering alternative ways to mark Memorial Day this year.

Post 148 in Riverview will set up a drive-through barbecue pick-up on Monday for first-responders. And Post 5 in Tampa, which has its own veterans cemetery, invites people to drive through the property with their headlights on from 10 a.m. to noon on Monday, said Bruce Carl, commander of American Legion Florida District 15. Post 5 is at 3810 W Kennedy Blvd.

The national organization has encouraged members to light a red, a white and a blue candle on Monday at dusk, Carl said. It’s to represent the blood that was shed, the prisoners of war and those missing in action, and those who came back home, but are no longer with us.

A private Memorial Day ceremony with families of the fallen will be held at the Ruskin-based My Warrior’s Place retreat center. Gold Star mother Kelly Kowall runs the center, which caters to veterans, service members, law enforcement officers, firefighters, Gold Star, Blue Star and Silver Star families.

It’s her way of honoring her son, the late Army Spc. Corey Kowall.

Her son had wanted to serve since the age of 5, she said. He had a calling for it.

On Sept. 20, 2009, he died in a vehicle rollover in Afghanistan.

Kowall participated in an online Memorial Day town hall on Friday with other Gold Star families, led by Tampa Councilman Luis Viera. It was an opportunity for the public to honor them and the memories of their children.

Kowall wants people to enjoy the day, she said, but also hopes they take time to reflect on what the day means to families like hers and to service members who have lost people with whom they served.

“People forget that when you are serving in the military, you are family,” she said.

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Those hoping to attend the annual ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg will have to turn online to a Facebook Live presentation of the event on Monday at 10 a.m.

The ceremony will be similar to those in previous years, but with no band or choir, no live audience. It will take place inside a meeting room on the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System campus to ensure better recording quality, said Kristine Brown, deputy director of the healthcare system.

It will include an honor guard from MacDill Air Force Base, the presentation of a ceremonial wreath and speakers from Bay Pines and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“This has always been one of our most prideful events,” Brown said, adding that it is important to continue the tradition of remembrance and reflection, even if through a screen.

“We can’t do it any other way,” she said.

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