Brig. Gen. David Stewart had no booming cannons or an Army band to celebrate his new stars last week, but he did get a waiver that allowed his family members to approach within a 5-foot bubble to pin them on at Peterson Air Force Base.
Welcome to ceremony amid coronavirus.
In a month that kicks off what is usually a summer of ceremony, Armed Forces Week is postponed, and even memorial rites for casualties of war will take a back seat to social distancing as Colorado works to slow the spread of a virus that had sickened more than 18,000 and killed more than 900 people statewide.
“As my wife and I were talking about this ceremony, we certainly temper our family joy with the fact there's a lot of stress and strife,” Stewart said, ahead of the ceremony that marked the high point of his 29-year Army career.
From May through August, Colorado Springs sees a swirl of military ceremonies as commanders come and go, leaders get promoted and patriotic holidays are celebrated. One of the usual events that kicks off the season happened weeks early as the Air Force Academy graduated its Class of 2020 with no cheering crowd under quarantine conditions.
“There are a lot of activities and ceremonies that are being modified based on this situation,” said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Terrance McWilliams, who is usually an honored guest at the summer ceremonies in his role as head of military programs for the El Pomar Foundation.
But McWilliams understands the need for caution more than most. He lost a brother in Florida to coronavirus in recent days.
“I think the community is very understanding that what we did in the past is no more and this is becoming the new norm,” he said.
May starts the ceremonial months off with a string of local tributes to troops that’s underwritten by the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC. Armed Forces Week has been celebrated in Colorado Springs since shortly after the end of World War II, with events including community concerts and a luncheon that draws hundreds of business and political leaders to celebrate the region’s most promising enlisted troops.
Retired Air Force Col. Reggie Ash, who heads military programs for the chamber, said that those celebrations are postponed for now, with an eye toward moving spring ceremonies to safer fall time slots.
“We are hopeful we will be able to get people together,” he said. “It is so important for us to recognize what the armed forces bring to this community.”
There’s no civilian equivalent to the pomp and ceremony that surrounds military life. Steeped in tradition, the military holds up promotions and changes in command as an example to troops, showing them what they can achieve.
That’s why Stewart’s muted ceremony as the new deputy commanding general of Army Space and Missile Defense Command is so different. Earning a general’s star is a big deal in the Army, where less than 1% of lieutenants will ever see promotion to brigadier.
That’s something the military usually celebrates on a parade field. Stewart got a video conference.
The new general was looking on the bright side.
“In some ways, I get even better,” he said. “I get to spend this very special family memory with my immediate family.”
But Stewart admits that there’s something lacking in these days of “safer-at-home” orders.
“Tradition and military tradition, it matters,” he said. “From the very earliest ties you come into the military, you are trained in tradition.”
Ash has a master’s degree in strategic leadership and agrees that all those ceremonies help the military accomplish its missions at home and overseas.
“Ceremony is an aspect of that and its downplayed in most organizations, but certainly not in the military,” he said.
But the military is not throwing tradition out the window entirely.
Stewart’s promotion didn’t happen on the parade field, but did wind up in a venue far larger: the internet.
The military has worked over the past two months to move to an online world, where commanders can meet with vast formations of troops online.
Adapting to circumstances was a key message Stewart delivered in his promotion ceremony remarks.
“Be loyal to the here and now and don't look too far forward or too far behind,” he said.
McWilliams said the civilian community can look to the military as an example of keeping at least a veneer of normalcy in these abnormal times.
“I won't say it changes military culture, but it will definitely change the way the military does its ceremonies,” said McWilliams, who retired as Fort Carson’s top enlisted soldier.
The reason the military has been quick to change its ceremonies is simple: Sick troops aren’t available to fight, so social distancing is a strategic necessity.
“I tell you, we have had to, the whole Army and the world has had to find a new way to operate,” Stewart said. “We are maximizing our teleworking and we are leveraging technology to hold meetings.”
Ash said it’s a change that commanders don’t take lightly, though.
“It’s a challenge I certainly never had to lead through,” he said.
And the community is looking forward to the day when troops return to parade fields and the pomp is back.
“It's sad that we are missing all that,” Ash said.