Memorial Day is Monday, but the scene is already being set in Virginia.
Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery, soldiers in camouflage placed American flags on the graves of fallen heroes. It's a tradition dating back to 1868.
A large patriotic ceremony honoring the service and sacrifice of America's military is set for Monday morning. The annual event includes a wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of the unknowns, followed by a remembrance ceremony in the Memorial Amphitheater.
About 220,000 flags are being placed at individual gravesites.
Old Guard Faithfully Places Arlington Flags
Before each Memorial Day, service members mark thousands of headstones. `It's an honor,' a volunteer says.
May 28, 2006
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY — In the late afternoon light, the Old Guard units fan out over the hills and valleys of the cemetery. Methodically, at each grave, they pull the flags from their rucksacks and push the small poles into the ground. Gatorade caps tucked inside gloves protect their hands from the sharpened ornamental tips.
Each year, the number of flags grows, though that fact is not one in which anyone takes pleasure. More than 300,000 are interred, starting with veterans from the Revolutionary War. Here there are also 285 troops from the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is at this cemetery that the nation collectively looks each Memorial Day as it honors those who served. And why soldiers and sailors like Gabriel Fernandez, volunteering for the day, take such care with the task before them.
Fernandez, dressed in Navy white, uses his black boot to measure the distance from the face of the tombstones on Chaplain's Hill to determine where the flags will be placed. Shaded from the afternoon sun by oak trees, the three large markers are engraved in memory of the military chaplains buried there.
Fernandez, who is from Miami, joined the Navy Ceremonial Guard about 18 months ago.
“It's an honor to be doing this,” he said as he placed another flag.
Each year, hundreds of men and women like Fernandez, stationed in the Washington area and from different branches of the service, come together on the Thursday before Memorial Day to take part in the Arlington ceremony known as “Flags In.”
Much of the task is carried out — as it has been since 1948 — by soldiers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment, better known as the Old Guard. Throughout the year, members of the regiment stationed at Arlington provide a ceremonial presence at the many funerals in the cemetery — an average of 25 a day.
One member of the Old Guard, Specialist Aaron Nelson of Minnesota, ensured the flags placed by his colleagues were sufficiently upright Thursday.
Treading heavily between the neat rows of white headstones and corresponding flags, occasionally ducking a low branch or stooping to straighten an errant pole, he explains this attention to detail, saying that “our job out here represents who we are — if [the flags] are messed up, people will think badly of us.”
When he enlisted in 2003, he thought he would be sent overseas immediately. But his assignment has been here, as part of an honor guard for burials.
It is during the funerals of soldiers on active duty that he has come to appreciate the dangers facing his contemporaries overseas — and the cost at home. He recalls standing recently next to a family laying a young soldier to rest. “I thought, That's a 2-year-old who just lost their dad in Iraq,” he says quietly.
Nelson's Command Sergeant Major, Russel McCray, has been in the military 24 years and “learned to hold a lot of the emotion inside.”
But, he says, “when you are burying a 17- to 21-year-old, it's a lot more difficult. They're young, their life was just beginning, but they were willing to give the ultimate sacrifice.” Turning away, he barks orders at a group of soldiers. “We think about our job daily, and this year is a bit more emotional than in the past,” he said.
Among those observing Thursday's flag ceremony was Colonel William Barefield of Merced, California, Arlington's most senior military chaplain. He describes the cemetery as a “wonderful, sacred place” where it is a privilege to work, “but each day my heart is moved by the stories of these families.”
Within two hours, the Old Guard and the hundreds of volunteers from the other service branches have visited nearly all 612 acres of tombstones. As the last flag is posted, the young soldiers from the Old Guard form up into their companies.
Army Staff Sergeant Nicholas Zielinski, who served with the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad and Karbala, Iraq, from 2003 to 2004, calls them to attention and orders them home in tidy columns.
This day's work is “a big deal,” he says as his troops file past. He points out a bronze plaque beside the road, dedicated to Vietnam veterans of the 82nd Airborne, which reads: “Nothing is dearer than life, but nothing is more precious than to live it in freedom.”
As the departing troops follow the curving asphalt road along the cemetery's northern edge, they pass row upon row upon row of white tombstones, each now marked for Memorial Day with an American flag.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard