Deanna Sartor should be spending Memorial Day with her husband, Sgt. Maj. James Ryan Sartor.
But the Fort Carson Green Beret was killed during combat in Faryab Province, Afghanistan, last July.
So, she and the kids were to spend Memorial Day at Fort Bragg, N.C., where his name, recently added to the Special Operations Fallen Soldier Memorial, was to be unveiled.
Then the pandemic came.
"We were going to go to the beach," the mother of three said. "I had a vision for a very different day, obviously.
"It's a hard day in general, and then to be stuck at home ... "
And yet, the relative solitude fits her family's current dynamics.
"As a grieving family, we pulled into each other anyway," she said. "We tend to stick with our core group of friends."
Now, on Memorial Day, Deanna plans to walk the stretch of Highway 24 named after her fallen husband.
It's a long walk, 7 miles. But she won't be alone — her close friends plan to show up, along with members of her husband's unit.
As for the 10 months since she received the dreaded knock on the door: "We've had a ton of support, but this is obviously the worst journey you could ever be on."
'The isolation kills'
In the Pikes Peak region, home to 40,000 active-duty troops and more than 100,000 veterans, Memorial Days past have been a time to gather, remember and mourn at any one of dozens of events.
In 2020, those events have been scuttled by the coronavirus.
American Legion halls and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts around the region usually host Memorial Day gatherings, often daylong events that start with flag-raising ceremonies and pancake breakfasts early in the morning.
This year, an insidious, invisible enemy will keep survivors and mourners apart — an enemy that could be just as deadly as the virus itself.
“The isolation kills,” warned Dean Noechel, Colorado state commander of the American Legion, outlining his plans to get members to call the veterans they know on Memorial Day.
This Memorial Day will be especially difficult for Noechel. The Iraq war veteran and former Army helicopter crew chef says it will be tough to not be surrounded by veterans on a day when he thinks about friends killed overseas.
“It is not the start of summer for me,” he said. “It’s a day that I reflect and remember my seven brothers who were killed in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.”
Noechel says he’ll miss the services that honor the lives of those killed in action, but he thinks of the crews lost from 571st Air Ambulance Medical Company every day.
“It’s not just that we remember on that day,” he said.
Instead, Noechel is worried about his comrades who survived the war and are left to remember the fallen in isolation this year.
“We are trying to prevent veteran suicide.”
'Not scared of nothin''
Time marched on Friday morning at Fairview Cemetery in Fountain as members of the Pikes Peak Young Marines decorated the grave of every veteran, as members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6461 looked on.
A light breeze blew, sunlight filtered through trees, birds chirped, butterflies flitted. The roar of traffic whizzing through on nearby I-25 could be heard.
Almost nothing betrayed that a pandemic had sunk both groups' usual holiday weekend plans — except the gloves and mask worn by each child, sewn from fabric featuring red, white and blue stars and stripes.
"It's a little bit frightening to be out in the pandemic, but not that much," said 7-year-old Young Marines Lance Cpl. Jeremy Swartz, who put on a brave face Friday morning for his first time out of the house in two months.
"It's really meaningful to support the veterans we've lost in war."
As kids wove their way around the headstones, looking for signs of military service so they could offer a singular rose, a flag and a salute, the post's honor guard captain, Keith Rubel, paced at a distance, no mask on his face.
"I'm not scared of nothin'," the former Army cook said.
It's hard not to feel discontent ahead of a day the state government won't let him celebrate in usual fashion, he said.
"It's something the government should have allowed us to do," he said of canceled VFW and American Legion holiday ceremonies. "It's a little disappointing."
He'll spend Memorial Day reflecting on brothers-in-arms he lost in the desert in the not-so-distant past.
"It hurts," he said.
His plans? He's not sure anymore, but "it's not all about the barbecues anyway."
The Young Marines' commanding officer, Don Lopes, a former infantryman, said turning out Friday was a "small price to pay" considering the sacrifice of the fallen.
"Just giving that respect" via tokens placed at grave sites "means a whole lot to family members," he said.
"It does the heart good."
In the absence of traditional Memorial Day gatherings, the Legion is asking Front Range residents to symbolically honor the fallen.
“Right now what the community can do to help us on Memorial Day on Monday evening is light candles,” Noechel said.
Any candle will do, but the Legion is asking those who have them to light three: one red, one white and one blue.
“A red candle to remember the fallen, a white candle, to remember our prisoners of war and those missing in action, and a blue candle tor remember the veterans who returned home but are no longer with us,” he explained.
He also asked that people reach out to their veteran neighbors.
“I encourage you check in on your friends, your neighbors and those veterans,” he said. “This isolation is especially detrimental for veterans.”
Deanna's request of those who plan to indulge this holiday weekend, no matter how limited: Understand that those whose loved ones have paid the ultimate sacrifice have had their lives irrevocably changed.
"People expect you to get over it after a time, and I just think people who haven't been through a serious loss don't understand that you never get over it," she said.
"It's heartbreaking. We were married 17 years, but he was gone over 13 of those years in another country, serving. Then to lose him forever ...
"Americans just don't realize how deep the sacrifice really is."