It’s been a silent spring at Omaha National Cemetery. It will be a quiet Memorial Day, too.
No crack of a three-gun rifle volley across the rolling hillsides. No bugler blowing taps. No flags fluttering crisply in the breeze.
On March 23, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clamped unprecedented restrictions on the conduct of funerals at the 142 military cemeteries it runs, in an effort to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
The action limited all funeral gatherings and services to 10 people, in keeping with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Later, visitors were further restricted to their cars.) Though cemeteries remained open, most public buildings were closed.
And the VA barred the rendering of military honors — the rifle salute, the mournful bugle song, the ceremonial flag-folding that makes military funerals so solemn and unique.
There has been no indication yet when the restrictions might end.
The limits have also forced Omaha National to cancel Monday’s Memorial Day services, an annual highlight since the cemetery opened in 2016. Usually, Scouts, veterans groups or youth organizations place small flags at every grave, creating a sea of red, white and blue among the gleaming headstones.
Not this year.
Manager Ryan Gray of Omaha’s Braman Mortuary, who served in the Army Reserve during the 1990s, called it “heartbreaking.”
“The family can still have a viewing. But at the graveside, all they do is see the casket go in the ground,” Gray said. “It’s horrible.”
Omaha National Cemetery Director Greta Hamilton understands the need to keep the families safe, as well as the military and veteran volunteers who carry out the honors. But she fully understands how sad it is.
“It takes the heart out of what we do,” she said.
Hamilton said families do have the option of going ahead with burials now, and carrying out the military honors later, when the pandemic is over.
“After it’s deemed safe, the families who want to have a memorial service can have one,” she said.
The ban on military honors doesn’t apply at privately operated cemeteries, though state-imposed limits on the size of public gatherings continue to impact funerals.
Bob Schwer of Omaha’s American Legion Post No. 1 normally performs honor guard duties at 10-12 funerals a month. The number is much smaller this year.
“We haven’t had many calls,” said Schwer, 74, who served 28 years in the Nebraska Army National Guard.
The Nebraska National Guard is still providing honor guards for funerals across the state, too, said Sgt. Maj. Mark Smith, the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the Guard’s funeral honors program.
But the number of requests is about half the normal amount. Smaller honor guards of two or three service members are serving.
“This is the national standard due to COVID-19 health guidelines,” Smith said in a statement.
Gray said many families prefer to bury their loved ones in military cemeteries, which are scenic and well-kept — and where burial plots are free for honorably discharged veterans and their spouses.
“A lot of families are just waiting,” he said. “I haven’t had anyone go away from the (Omaha) national cemetery, because it’s such a beautiful place.”
That’s relatively easy in the case of cremations, which Gray said now make up about 50% of burials in Omaha.
Frank Bianco’s family never thought twice about waiting for military honors after the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Papillion died April 21 at age 86.
“He was such a ‘God, country, family’ man,” said his son, Bill Bianco, an Omaha attorney. “It’s more important to my family that he gets the honors he deserves.”
Frank Bianco grew up in New Jersey and had earned a degree in mechanical engineering before he was commissioned in the Air Force in 1956 and trained as an aircraft navigator.
He flew B-52 missions for the Strategic Air Command during a 20-year career that spanned the frostiest parts of the Cold War.
“During the Cuban Missile Crisis he was in Alaska, ready to bomb the Soviet Union,” Bill Bianco said.
Bianco flew 139 Vietnam War combat missions aboard AC-119K gunships, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for valor and an Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters.
Late in his career, Bianco was assigned to a staff position at SAC headquarters at Offutt. The East Coast native had found a new home in Nebraska for his family, which included his wife, Cheryl, two sons and one daughter.
After retiring in 1976, he ran Italian restaurants and worked as a traffic engineer in Sarpy County. He was active at St. Columbkille Catholic Church.
Frank Bianco’s military service remained important to him, and he was pleased when Omaha National Cemetery opened in 2016. He made daily visits after Cheryl died in October 2018 and was buried there.
“Sometimes, in the middle of the winter, I would have to discourage him,” Bill Bianco said. “He got to know all the staff at the cemetery.”
Frank died 18 months after his wife. He will join her after the pandemic is over, with full military honors.
“If anybody’s earned them, he has,” Bill Bianco said. “So we’ll wait. Hopefully not too long."