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On Memorial Day, Rep. Lauren Underwood visits graves at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery

Underwood told people from her district “who were either essential workers or at high risk, or maybe sick themselves,” she would visit graves in their place on Memorial Day.

Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., visits a grave at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery on Memorial Day.
Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., visits a grave at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery on Memorial Day.
Provided

At 6 a.m. Monday, Memorial Day, the day the nation remembers military members who died while serving our country, Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., left her Naperville apartment to drive south, some 40 miles, to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.

Memorial Day was the first federal holiday we observed while struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic, and for many, the traditions we used to do on this day couldn’t be done.

In 2019, Underwood — who represents the sprawling 14th Congressional District, suburban and exurban turf west, north and south of Chicago — spoke at Memorial Day gatherings in Woodstock and Wauconda. Group observances are off the table in 2020.

Underwood, a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, came up with another way to mark Memorial Day and honor the sacrifice of service members.

Her office asked 14th District residents to let them know if they could not make it to a cemetery because of any COVID-19 related reason.

Underwood or her staff would stand in and pay their respects for them.

That’s why Underwood visited 12 graves of people at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, then headed to Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Kankakee to stop by one more.

The names of the deceased were “submitted by residents of the 14th who were either essential workers or at high risk, or even sick themselves,” Underwood told me.

Usually thousands of members of the public are at the Lincoln cemetery to attend a wreath-laying ceremony. Underwood said this year, in order to keep everyone safe, the ceremony took place but was closed to the public.

At each gravesite, a masked Underwood left a red rose or either a carnation or a baby’s breath. She purchased the flowers Saturday at the Jewel in Oswego.

She stuck a U.S. flag in the ground and said a prayer for healing, asking, she told me, for blessings for the impacted families who could not make the visit themselves, and for them to find “comfort ... and give them strength.”

Pulling off the road near the border of Kankakee and Will counties, Underwood also participated in a Memorial Day event in Aurora via Zoom, which has become the crucial group communication app during these pandemic months.

Underwood said she offered her gratitude and thanks “particularly to the Gold Star families — how much we are grateful to them for their sacrifice.”

Except for trips back to Washington, Underwood spends her COVID-19 days alone in her apartment, leaving about once a week for groceries and for a short visit to her parents. Her mother, in Underwood’s telling, is so strict about coronavirus spread that she follows her around when she visits with a can of Lysol.

Being by herself so much means, Underwood said, “I look forward to every video conference meeting that I have because I miss interacting with other people.”

The days sort of melt together, said Underwood.

Memorial Day — the holiday kicking off the start of summer, usually also marked by festive cookouts and travel — was “a little bit odd because it feels like almost any other day during COVID-19, except we know it’s an important day,” Underwood said.

Underwood is on a VA panel that oversees the national cemeteries.

Memorial Day Fort Sheridan update

Memorial Day is a good time for an update on a change of status of a historic — and little noticed — military cemetery in Lake County, between Highwood and Lake Forest.

Last December, the Department of the Army transferred Fort Sheridan to the Veterans Affairs Administration, making it a National Cemetery.

The cemetery, opened in 1889, was maintained by the Army after Fort Sheridan, an Army post starting in 1887, closed in 1993.

Civil War vets and German POWs from World War II are among those buried at Fort Sheridan.

Most of the old, architecturally stunning Fort Sheridan officers’ quarters were converted to private homes. Portions of Fort Sheridan’s remaining open lands have walking paths with dazzling views of Lake Michigan and lakefront access, all overseen by the Lake County Forest Preserves and open to the public.