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Military families share Memorial Day with nation mourning coronavirus losses

The president ordered flags to fly at half-staff to honor coronavirus victims.

Each will take a red balloon, fill it with helium, and write a message on the outside with a marker. Some will say "we love you," others "we miss you."

"But mainly, 'I can't wait to see you again,'" Vikki Pier said she'll write on hers. Then, Noah Pier's family will let the balloons go and watch them float away.

Lance Cpl. Noah Pier was killed in action in Afghanistan on Feb. 16, 2010. It was the 25-year-old Marine's second deployment. Monday marks the 10th Memorial Day that his parents, Vikki and Mark Pier, have celebrated and honored their eldest son, and grieved his loss.

Some years, they make it to Arlington National Cemetery, to sit with their son, but this year they decided to stay home.

"There's no way we would not celebrate it -- (that) we would not honor him -- even with this COVID," Vikki Pier told ABC News.

While the whole family cannot gather as they have in previous years, they will all be taking time to remember.

Noah, she said, was a tall, loud young man, known for drinking coffee and learning to cook so he could always eat well -- pumpkin pie, cheese cake and lasagna were some of his favorites. He always rooted for the underdog, loved music and sang with all his heart.

"You could never catch him without a smile on his face," Mark Pier said. "He was a joy to raise."

He was, they said, a proud Marine.

"He did believe in the fight for freedom," Vikki Pier said of her son, who was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart. "And he believed that it was vital to keep those that would harm us off our soil. So even though he went to Afghanistan, he believed he was protecting us here at home."

For many, Memorial Day means a time for barbecues with family and friends, the end of a school year and the unofficial beginning of summer. According to some polls, only about half of Americans know the holiday's true meaning. Many mistakenly believe it commemorates all veterans.

But Memorial Day, of course, honors the men and women who sacrificed their lives.

More than 645,000 Americans have been killed in conflicts since WWI -- a sacrifice that "cost a lot of families everything," as Vikki Pier put it.

This year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Memorial Day will be different.

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"While we may not be able to gather together in the manner in which we are accustomed, we will still ensure those who made the supreme sacrifice in the service of our country are appropriately honored and remembered on Memorial Day," Jeff Reinbold, superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks, said in a statement.

Parades across the nation have been canceled, wreath-laying ceremonies at the war memorials on the National Mall will be streamed virtually and the National Memorial Day Concert will be live-streamed.

Arlington National Cemetery, where Vikki Pier says her "heart is," will be closed to the public but remains open for families with passes.

All 142 VA national cemeteries will be open for visitation throughout the weekend, but there will be no public events and no traditional placement and retrieval of gravesite flags.

There will be no Poppy Wall of Honor installation on the Mall. The United Services Automobile Association, which serves millions of military families, has created a website in its place, offering a digital tribute.

"What we find in this current environment is that Americans are heroic people," USAA senior vice president and retired Navy Vice Adm. John Bird told ABC News, saying Americans have a tradition of heroism. "They are willing to sacrifice. They are willing to step in harm's way. I am certainly inspired by the nurses, the doctors, the first responders. And I think the world of them. On the other hand, I know Memorial Day is dedicated to those who died in combat."

Krista Meinert was planning to visit Arlington National Cemetery on Monday to honor her son, Jacob, who also was killed in action in Afghanistan, on Jan. 10, 2010. For the last nine years, she has made the trip all the way from Wisconsin.

But now, because of the coronavirus, she decided to stay home.

"This year, being that it is his 10-year anniversary, I wanted it to be grand," Meinert told ABC News.

But the coronavirus dashed those hopes. Now, she's at home -- Jacob's childhood home -- along with all his belongings.

"I think that I was most afraid of was being stuck in these four walls with my own thoughts by myself," said Meinert. "And that was the scariest thing."

Because of the coronavirus, Meinert said she was finally forced to confront the boxes, bins and containers that came back from Afghanistan all those years ago, filled with his clothes and other personal items.

"There's no way I can put it into words -- to open these boxes again and feel like you can still smell the smells," she said.

This is where she needed to be, she said, for that 10th anniversary of his death: at home, remembering who he was when he was alive.

From a young age, she said Jacob knew he wanted to be in the military.

In grade school he played with small, plastic soldiers and by high school he had collected World War II and Vietnam books. He had even studied the strategy behind chess. He defended kids who were bullied on the playground. She said he was the kid who could be friends with anyone. He had a Ricky Ricardo-type of laugh, his smile was crooked and he always had a glow in his eyes any time he told a story.

"He had this vision for himself and he fulfilled it," Meinert said, "He even told me, 'Mom, I'm going to come home with a Purple Heart.' And he did."

Lance Cpl. Jacob "Slim" Meiner, killed at just 20 years old, was awarded his Purple Heart, posthumously.

He was the leader who brought his troops hot chocolate on cold nights in Afghanistan, she said, and the Marine whose grave is still visited 10 years later by those who served with him.

This year the country grieves the nearly 100,000 people who have died from the coronavirus -- President Donald Trump ordered flags to fly at half-staff to honor those victims through the holiday. The families of the military fallen know that feeling all too well.

"I would ask each and every one of us Americans to be thankful that we've had other Americans who could do this," Bird, the retired vice admiral, said. "Just take a moment, just a brief moment on Monday, Memorial Day, to remember those great Americans."

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