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'It's a huge display of sacrifice': Coronavirus forces Boots on the Ground for Heroes to go virtual

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As Operation Stand Down Rhode Island development director Dee DeQuattro put it, you can’t cancel Memorial Day.

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps its way across the country, large public gatherings have been canceled as part of effort to curb the disease’s spread. OSDRI’s Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial was no exception, as the event was slated for its landmark fifth year but was forced to go virtual.

The memorial, held for the first time at Fort Adams State Park in Newport last year, features a boot, flag and name placard to remember each of the lives lost during the Global War on Terror since 9/11. OSDRI stationed more than 7,000 boots to honor fallen service members during last year’s installment, and about 10,000 people attend from all over the country.

“You can’t just cancel Memorial Day,” DeQuattro said during a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s a day that exists every year and it’s really important that we remind people why we have our freedoms and why we are able to live the lives we live in the U.S., and one of those reasons are those heroes that fought for our nation. For us, it was more about reminding people and having something that people could see and visualize and say, ‘Hey, this is the cost of freedom.’”

With some help from sponsor Cardi’s, the organization linked up with videographer Ben DeCastro, who filmed an eight-minute video featuring 29 boots arranged in a circle around the Rhode Island state flag at Beaver Tail State Park to honor the Ocean State’s fallen.

The video featured brief speaking spots from DeQuattro, OSDRI Executive Director Erik Wallen and Gold Star mother Lynn St. Germain.

“We know you’ve sacrificed, we’ve all sacrificed during this pandemic, but the sacrifices that we have suffered is nothing compared to what almost 7,000 fallen service members have suffered since the War on Terror began,” St. Germain said in the video. “Not to mention, what their families have suffered. As the mother of a fallen from the state of Rhode Island, please, we beg you, help us to remember those fallen.”

Wallen then ran the roll call of those honored with boots as St. Germain rang a bell after each name: SPC Michael Andrade, Capt. Matthew J. August, Sgt. Gregory A. Belanger, Sgt. Charles T. Caldwell, SSG Joseph Camara, Capt. Christopher S. Cash, Lance Cpl. Holly A. Charette, PFC Kyle J. Coutu, Second Lt. Matthew S. Coutu, Master Sgt. Richard L. Ferguson, Sgt. Dennis J. Flanagan, PS3 Ronald A. Gill Jr., Sgt. Moises Jazmin, SSG Dale J. Kelly Jr., SFC Curtis Mancini, SSG Timothy R. McGill, First Sgt. Peter A. McKenna Jr., Sgt. Michael F. Paranzino, SSG Christopher S. Potts, SPC Dennis C. Poulin, Lance Cpl. Matthew K. Serio, Lance Cpl. Nickolas D. Schiavoni, Sgt. Brian R. St. Germain, CW5 Sharon T. Swartworth, Lance Cpl. Abraham Tarwoe, LTJG Francis L. Toner IV, Lance Cpl. John J. Van Gyzen IV, Sgt. Dennis P. Weichel Jr. and Sgt. Michael R. Weidemann.

“For me, having dealt with Boots on the Ground and being in the service myself, there’s an impact of just seeing individuals that could've been serving next to me fallen in that field with the boots,” DeQuattro said. “It’s also to hear the stories from the families about their loved ones that have passed and who these people were, because they more than just service members, they were more than soldiers, sailors or Marines – they were people.”

Since the thousands seeking to honor fallen service members could not be together physically to express their gratitude, DeQuattro and OSDRI urged them to take to social media to show their support. Folks were encouraged to use #BOTG on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to share images from past Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial events or other photographs to honor the holiday.

Pictures flooded in from all over, which DeQuattro called an “amazing display of patriotism and respect for the fallen.”

“It blows my mind every year to see how many people are committed to the Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial, and it’s nice to see that even though we couldn’t host it in person, these same people remain committed and support the event and are doing what they can to remind people about the cost of freedom and the meaning of Memorial Day,” DeQuattro said.

Hosting the event in virtual fashion was important to DeQuattro and everyone at OSDRI, because despite the strict limitations and restrictions brought on by COVID-19, the message was simple: “We’re not giving up.”

“If you’ve ever seen the memorial, you would know that it is very impactful,” DeQuattro said. “It’s huge. It’s a huge display of sacrifice, and because we weren't able to do that, we thought a good way to do it would be to put it on the Internet and have people see images and photographs of people at the event in years past. That way we’re saying the memorial still exists.”

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