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'They are not forgotten' | Vietnam veteran organizes his own socially distant Memorial Day event

A Stafford County veteran organized a small event in honor of Memorial Day, while also taking precautions during the spread of coronavirus.

STAFFORD COUNTY, Va. — With the spread of coronavirus leading to Memorial Day events being moved online or canceled this year, a Vietnam veteran helped organize a small and socially distant wreath-laying ceremony to honor the fallen. 

Saturday will mark 50 years since Daniel Cortez landed in Vietnam while serving with the Marines. Decades later, he now serves as the chairman of the National Vet Court Alliance.

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For Cortez and countless other veterans, Memorial Day brings back experiences of being on the front lines and the ordeals they continue to deal with today. 

"The older you get, the more your wartime memories come back," he said. "I think of 'Corky' Ram who died in Vietnam. He took my place to go on a mission and he was killed." 

While Memorial Day events bring together crowds of people to honor men and women who have died serving the country, the spread of coronavirus has impacted gatherings this year.

Stafford County, where Cortez now lives, was forced to cancel its official event due to the pandemic.

After hearing the announcement, Cortez said that he jumped into action with a friend.

"When I heard that ceremonies were being closed, I said 'this isn’t right -- we have do something honorable,'" he said. "My friend, Dan Chichester, who is a former commonwealth's attorney and an Army veteran who served in Vietnam with me, we decided that we wanted to do something privately."

Cortez and Chichester gathered on Wednesday at the Stafford County Armed Services Memorial along with Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and the county sheriff for a wreath-laying that was not announced to the public.

In pictures sent to WUSA9, the group can be seen wearing personal protective masks and standing safely apart.

"That was our therapy to ensure our veterans are not forgotten," Cortez said. "It was calming. I left with a sense of honor." 

With other events in the DMV pushed online, Cortez said showing up to the digital gatherings to show support would help veterans on a somber day. 

"They will smile," Cortez said. "They will think they haven’t been forgotten. The enemy in Vietnam was sometimes an invisible enemy. Today, we’re fighting a different enemy and you can’t see it." 

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