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Military chaplains work to help people they serve feel cared for this Memorial Day

Wearing a face mask, a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment also known as The Old Guard, places flags in front of each headstone for "Flags-In" at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, May 21, 2020
Carolyn Kaster
The Associated Press
Wearing a face mask, a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment also known as The Old Guard, places flags in front of each headstone for "Flags-In" at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Thursday, May 21, 2020.

It's fair to say that this Memorial Day is unlike most that have come before. For one, there won’t be the usual parades or ceremonies.

Those rituals can be of great comfort to many who are coping with loss on Memorial Day, especially people in or connected to the military.

KNKX spoke with Lt. Col. Jason Nobles, deputy chaplain for First Corps, based at Joint Base Lewis McChord near Tacoma.

He says chaplains were already making an effort to reach out to people amid the pandemic, “through social media, through the telephone, through keeping social distancing, but actually going and visiting folks to make sure that their loved and cared for.”

And those efforts will be especially important this weekend.

Listen to the conversation above, or read a transcript of it below. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Ed Ronco, KNKX: The military is known for its structure and its crispiness and its organization. So on one hand, you live in that world and on the other hand, you're dealing with grief and loss and all kinds of human things that are very messy. That seems like two different worlds to be in, and trying to walk a fine line of making sure they make sense together.

Lt. Col. Jason Nobles, Deputy Chaplain I-Corps: Especially for our combat veterans, those still on active duty and retired, it can be a very hard day. I think the ceremonies help.

KNKX: Have you had conversations with folks about really missing that? And how are you helping them get through kind of the new way of doing things this year?

Nobles: So ritual is extremely important to our veterans, to our active duty members, to our spouses. You know, the encouragement is really a personal time to think upon those that have gone before us. Where in the past, we've done the larger gatherings, it's going to be a more personal event this year but I think it can still be very meaningful.

I served at Arlington National Cemetery for two years as a chaplain, and then with The Old Guard up the hill on Fort Myer for another two years. And in those days journeyed with many families through the grieving process, through the loss of their sons and daughters. The loss, especially for our Gold Star Families, is very, very difficult. For some, it's so hard, they can't even come in person to these ceremonies.

KNKX: A Gold Star family is a family that's lost somebody in combat.

Nobles: Yes. And so at the level they're comfortable with, just reach out. If you know a Gold Star family or family member, just reach out and let them know that you love them, appreciate them and are thinking of them.

KNKX: I think a lot of people can struggle with what to say. You don't want to intrude, but on the other hand you want to offer comfort. You have a lot of experience with this. What's your advice to people who want to be there for their friends and family?

Nobles: I think your presence is a very important thing. And you don't actually have to say much — just being present and letting them talk, letting them vent, whatever it may be. As I've lost folks close to me, that presence, people journeying with me and being patient and listening, caring for me, praying for me, praying with me is very, very important. And so I count it a great honor, what I get to do as a chaplain and all our chaplains do across the military.

KNKX: If it's not too personal, how do you plan to spend Memorial Day?

Nobles: I have a memorial box sitting next to my desk, and I've been opening it a little bit this week. And on the outside of the box are the things I celebrate about my career. Inside are some things that are hard, and inside are letters from Gold Star families, and letters they wrote me after I did their sons’ and daughters’ funerals. And so part of it is just privately going through that myself and kind of grieving. The other piece is ceremonies, like we're having the wreath laying that’s being taped today [Thursday, May 21] and will be broadcast on Monday. So, just to join in virtually to remember our fallen.

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Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.