Utahns mark Memorial Day with drive-by tributes, out of concern for COVID-19

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Heber Valley Railroad passengers wait to board the Heber Creeper train cars at the historic railroad in anticipation of an excursion Monday as American flags honor of our military, past and present, men and women who serve or have served in our Armed Forces, May 25, 2020.

Heber City • Back in March, Amaria Scovil, one of the people overseeing Heber City’s Memorial Day events, said, “we first realized we would have to be doing things differently this year.”

Most years, there’s a breakfast program at the Wasatch County Events Center — with food, music and guest speakers, said Scovil, director of the county’s recreation center. The event ends when the veterans in the audience are asked to stand in front of the main stage, and everyone else lines up to shake their hands and thank them for their service to the nation.

“That is just amazing to watch,” Scovil said.

This year, though, in-person Memorial Day events in towns across Utah — most notably the large service held annually at Provo Cemetery — were canceled to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The alternative Scovil and her colleagues at the Wasatch County Parks and Recreation Department created was a drive-by tribute at the Veterans Memorial Park, a small space of grassy land on the west edge of Heber City, across the street from the Heber Valley Railroad.

“This is our plan B,” Scovil said.

[Read also: Thankful researcher hopes to connect with families of Utahns still missing in action from the Korean War]

Wasatch County was an early coronavirus hotspot in Utah. According to Utah Department of Health statistics, as of Monday, the county has had 247 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — which, for a population of just over 34,000, is nearly triple the statewide rate. State officials lowered the color-coded safety rating for Wasatch County from moderate-risk “orange” to lower-risk “yellow” on Friday, a week after the rating was lowered in most of Utah.

On the park area, around the permanent stone marker that was erected in 2018 as an Eagle Scout project, park workers and volunteers put up flags representing the branches of the U.S. military, and dozens of small lawn signs.

Some signs were pre-printed, others were hand-drawn. Some carry broad messages of support, such as “Thank you, veterans.” Others single out residents of the county, past and present, who served in the military during wartime.

Among the many names: Neil K. Mahoney, who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces Engineer Corps during World War II; Stanley DeFriez, a soldier in the Korean War, and his descendant, Ira DeFriez, a current Army captain; and Charles Goble, a combat pilot in World War II who then flew troop transports in the Korean War, and went back to flying combat missions in Vietnam.

The community embraced the drive-by tribute, Scovil said, and helped out. The street, 600 West, leading to the park is lined with American flags — 100 are owned by the county, she said, while another 100 were borrowed from the local ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On Heber City’s Main Street, a huge American flag hangs from the extended ladder of a Wasatch County Fire District fire truck, showing drivers where to turn off the main drag.

Scovil — whose husband and son both fly aircraft in the military — said Monday she expected many veterans who live in Wasatch County to swing by the tribute. Unfortunately, because of social distancing guidelines, Scovil said, people won’t be able to shake their hands and show their appreciation in person. “That’s the one part that’s missing this year,” she said.

About an hour’s drive northwest of Heber City, at the Station Park shopping center in Farmington, another annual Memorial Day event had a different look.

The nonprofit group Operation Hero altered its usual display at Station Park, which consisted of pairs of painted combat boots, for a drive-through tribute with 50 American flags and 282 lawn signs — each with the name of a Utah service member who died while serving. All those represented have died since Sept. 11, 2001.

The tribute in Farmington opened Saturday, and ran through Monday.

Emotionally, there’s not a big difference in this year’s display, said Antionette Stapley, founder of Operation Hero. “As you drive through Station Park and see all the signs, it still tugs at your heart,” she said. “As you walk through and see their faces, you see how young they are.”

Stapley’s husband, U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Tracy Stapley, died while serving in Qatar on July 3, 2013. “Tracy was always known to help and give back. This is our way of continuing that,” his wife said. “Knowing how my husband was, he would want everyone to be honored alongside him.”

Stapley — whose son, Trase, flies an Apache helicopter for the U.S. Army in Alaska — said the tribute allows people, even during a pandemic, to mark the holiday.

“What I hope people remember is that today, Memorial Day, we remember these service members,” she said.