GARFIELD — The Memorial Day ceremony at the town of Garfield’s cemetery unfolded pretty much the same way it has for generations in a matter of minutes.

A member of the G. Raymond McCown American Legion Post 24 of Garfield carried the American flag.

The organization’s chaplain read a speech with anecdotes about the heroism of military members, his words almost drown out by chirping birds on the evergreen tree studded bluff just outside the town. A bugler played taps and legion members standing in a line fired three rounds of blanks.

But with the nation still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, the ritual was perhaps one of the most extraordinary Memorial Day commemorations Garfield has held in decades.

Typically veterans and community leaders organize dozens of similar solemn, patriotic events throughout north central Idaho and southeastern Washington.

This year, however, with new cases of COVID-19 still surfacing, Garfield was one of the few towns to stick with the tradition.

“I thought it’s for us to honor our (soldiers) who have served our country and protected our freedom,” said Legion Chaplain James Woomack, a retired navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War and other places.

“They didn’t stop if they were sick or in danger,” he said.

The group thought carefully about its choice and moved forward partly because of the relatively low number of cases in Whitman County and the lower density of Garfield’s population compared with places like New York City that have been hit harder by the disease, Woomack said.

The legion has been active in the town throughout the pandemic, helping continue distributions of the food bank it sponsors among other things.

“Nobody (should) panic,” said Legion Treasurer Greg Holbrook. “Everybody (should) just take a deep breath and we’ll figure it out. We’ll get through it as a nation if we do that.”

A U.S. Army veteran, Holbrook has spent his lifetime navigating difficult situations. He was wounded in battle in Vietnam when his unit was battling a regiment of North Vietnamese soldiers, during the Tet Offensive, described by the History Channel as a “coordinated series” of attacks on more than 100 locations in South Vietnam.

“They were very good soldiers and they were very well equipped,” he said.

His lower jaw was in almost 30 pieces and a more-than-half-foot-long piece of the bomb responsible for his injury was resting on the ground near him.

An 18-year-old African American from Missouri saved many lives that day. “He was scared to death, but he did his job and he got a bunch of us out of there,” Holbrook said.

When he got home, he settled in Garfield where he has participated in a Memorial Day commemoration every year, eventually becoming a certified nursing assistant working at hospitals in Colfax and Pullman before he retired.

Often his patients were the grandparents of his peers and he drew on his experiences in Vietnam to understand their pain.

“It gave me empathy,” Holbrook said.

The sacrifices of Woomack, Holbrook and other veterans are important enough to Connie Kriebel and her daughter, Hope Kriebel, that the women have attended the Garfield Memorial Day commemoration every year.

The elder Kriebel’s father served in the Army in the Korean War. She remembers how her mother would take her to double feature movies on Veteran’s Day when her dad would get together with fellow veterans to share stories.

What they had been through was intense and her mother didn’t believe her daughter was old enough to handle hearing them reminisce, Connie Kriebel said.

From almost as long as she’s been able to walk, Hope Kriebel has helped place flags on the graves of veterans at Garfield’s cemetery just before Memorial Day weekend.

Connie Kriebel’s dad was an organizer of the commemoration before he died in 2016. One time he didn’t have any speakers.

Kriebel and her sister hurriedly found the poem “In Flanders Fields” on the internet to recite. It contains the reflections of a Canadian physician who fought in World War I observing poppies growing among the graves of recently fallen soldiers.

Helping in that way was one of the many contributions she and other family members have made to the event over the years.

“We truly respect and honor our veterans,” she said.

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

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