Courtesy of/Emily Domenech
"The idea that all those people who I would normally see on a day like that were not going to be able to come in, it just kind of blew my mind."
Courtesy of/Emily Domenech
Emily Domenech only planned to honor one person during her visit to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day: her late grandfather, John Domenech, a career Army officer who fought in three wars. But by the time the cemetery closed Monday, she had honored 60 fallen veterans at their gravesites, on behalf of families across the country who couldn't be there in person.
Following social-distancing guidelines put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, Arlington National Cemetery marked Memorial Day differently this year than usual. While the holiday weekend typically draws more than 135,000 visitors, the cemetery was limited to just the families of buried veterans. The cemetery has been closed to the public since mid-March, when Virginia's statewide shutdown order went into effect.
As Domenech arrived Monday morning, she grabbed a handful of extra flowers from volunteers at the cemetery. She was preparing to pay her respects to her grandfather, whose gravesite she visits every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, when she was struck by the idea of helping others pay theirs.
"As I was going in, I was remembering past years where most of the people you see in Arlington are people who are there to visit their buddies, where the fallen service member is somebody who they served with," Domenech says. "And the idea that all those people who I would normally see on a day like that were not going to be able to come in, it just kind of blew my mind."
So she posted an offer on Twitter: She would honor those whose loved ones weren't able to access the cemetery.
Domenech says at first she expected to receive only a few replies from people she knows. But within a few hours of her initial tweet, the replies were impossible to keep up with. People were retweeting her post and tagging their friends.
The Alexandria native enlisted her brother, Ben, to help make a list of the requests, and asked people to message her directly with the cemetery section where their loved ones were buried. "It went from like 10 requests to 50 in an hour," she says.
Domenech laid down flowers at various gravesites until she ran out. She also dusted off some gravestones and took photos, posting them on Twitter. She says she received a few reprimanding glances from the security staff, since visitors were asked to stay in their family member's section.
The deceased ranged in experience. One requester's father served in Vietnam, won a Purple Heart, and was a prisoner of war; other fallen veterans were younger when they died, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One woman's request in particular stood out to Domenech: that of Megan Phaneuf, who lost her husband, Ryan, a pilot in Afghanistan. "She knew where her husband was buried, but she didn't know if he had a gravestone or not, because he was killed in January," Domenech explains. "She was able to attend his funeral right before they closed the cemetery for coronavirus, but she had not been able to see the headstone."
Domenech was able to find the headstone and sent Phaneuf what was the first photo Phaneuf had ever seen of it. "She has no idea when she'll be able to visit it, so that one was incredibly moving to me," notes Domenech.
By Monday afternoon, Domenech realized she hadn't eaten lunch or gotten any water. She drove home for a break and came back with her parents. They brought more flowers with them so she could continue fulfilling people's requests.
While one Twitter user found Domenech's Venmo account and suggested that people send her money to cover a round of beer, Domenech thought of what she considered a better use for their money. She asked people to instead donate to two causes that are devoted to veterans and military families: the Boot Campaign and the Travis Manion Foundation.
The cemetery officially closed at 5 p.m., but Domenech stayed until 5:30 p.m., when security drove by. Sunburned and exhausted, she says she departed with just one regret: that she couldn't get to all the requests that flooded her inbox. By the end of the day, there were hundreds.
Still, Domenech says she plans to publish in one place all the photos she took. She hopes to organize a similar visit next year.
"Memorial Day is really about remembering people's lives and particularly those who passed in combat," she says. "I would love to be able to do something where we took names and people's contact information ahead of time and had a big group of people to do that. We could share way more pictures."