The pandemic might be putting a damper on your Memorial Day plans to kick off the summer, but a Dallas nonprofit is not letting the 2019 novel coronavirus stop them from making sure the true meaning of Memorial Day is not forgotten -- honoring the men and women who gave their lives to serve our country.
The 10th annual Carry the Load Dallas Memorial March, which draws tens of thousands of people to Reverchon Park each Memorial Day weekend, is following social distancing recommendations as a 'memorial drive' this year.
The drive featured 200 storyboards of fallen heroes across a two mile stretch in the Turtle Creek area. Each board shows the name, story and date that a serviceman or servicewoman was killed in action. Those participating in the drive stopped to take a moment and read their stories.
“In this time of uncertainty, our mission and our purpose has not changed. Since 2011, Carry The Load has provided an outlet for financial and emotional support to our nation’s heroes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire world has become painfully aware of the courage and sacrifice of those on the front lines," said Stephen Holley, co-founder and CEO of Carry the Load.
Despite pouring rain for much of the morning in Dallas, organizers predict at least a thousand vehicles came out for the event. Many vehicles were decorated with patriotic flags and banners, some with posters and messages for fallen loved ones.
The event ran from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday but the story boards will be kept up until later Monday afternoon.
The name signifies families and volunteers “carrying the load” by marching with the names of those gone before them.
On Monday, Carry The Load ambassador and U.S. Coast Guard Veteran Steve Dunnahoe reflected on the load he carries. He's thinking about 18-year old fellow guardsman Billy Ray Flores of Benbrook, who was killed in 1980 when his ship was run over in Tampa Bay.
“When duty came up he figured that the lives of his shipmates were more important than his life," he said. “It’s a day to remember all of the people who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country and also to remember the veterans, active duty in first responders, police and fire departments that are on the front lines.”
Since 2012, U.S. Army veteran Glen Dare has added names to the army pack he carries on his back. On Monday, he's carrying the load for his an old friend, Lt. Col. Jamie Leonard of Warrick, New York. She was killed in action in 2013 at 39 years old.
"She is the highest ranking colonel to die in combat," Dare said.
He said Carry The Load allows him and others to better understand and cope with the emotional pain of losing heroes. In the past several, Dare has walked more than 50 miles each time for the Carry The Load National Relay from West Point Academy in New York to New York City.
"That physical pain and emotional purge. I had a lot of built-up anger about what Memorial Day was really about until I joined the military and started losing friends of mine. I didn’t have an avenue to express that," he said.
Other decided to express themselves through art, like 17-year old Key Coker. The Dallas teenager brought 100 homemade wooden crosses from his own cross-building business to stake into the ground along the memorial drive route.
"It has had such an impact on me personally by seeing the what they are doing for these veterans," he said. "It is the least we can do for them, since they have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom."
In previous years, volunteers would normally carry posters with the names and pictures of fallen service members as thousands across Dallas marched throughout the entire Memorial Day weekend.
There’s also usually a huge national relay with thousands of walkers and cyclists traveling toward Dallas, where the non-profit was founded.
This year, the pandemic has forced those relays and rallies across the country to go virtual this year with videos and fundraisers online.
Organizers told NBC 5 that despite the pandemic the message this year is still the same -- sharing those stories of local heroes so that their memories are never forgotten.
“What’s Memorial Day all about? We’ve gotten away from why are we really here. Why are we stopping and honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice is Memorial Day?” said Craig Couch, a board member for Carry the Load. “Memorial Day, it seems at some point, became about barbecues and mattress sales. I understand that’s going to happen, so enjoy yourself. But take some of that time to stop and to honor and remember.”
He said this year also presents the opportunity to honor those working to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic.
“All of our first responders. Because all of these people are our heroes. What an incredible year to be honoring those who are on the front lines, who are out there taking care of all of us,” Couch said.
Carry The Load was founded in 2011 by veteran U.S. Navy SEALs, Clint Bruce and Stephen Holley, with a mission to restore the true meaning of Memorial Day. The first event featured a more than 20-hour Memorial March that took place on Memorial Day weekend at White Rock Lake in Dallas.
The event has evolved into a national relay and fundraiser across 40 states. They’ve raised $25.2 million since 2011 for military veterans, first responders and their families.
“When I really started remembering Memorial Day was when I started losing friends," said Holley. “We’re here to mourn the loss of those who’ve given the ultimate sacrifice, but we’re also here, united, to celebrate those lives and thank God that such men and women lived.”
If you couldn't make the memorial drive you can still connect through social media by watching live streams and other events on the Carry the Load Facebook page and website, www.carrytheload.org/dallas.