The story behind ‘flags in’ tradition

At first glance, it might appear a feat of great proportions. Individually placing a flag exactly one boot length and center on the headstone of every gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery.

Hard as the job may appear, it's conducted with a great deal of pride and precision. Exclusively the 3d U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) since 1950 has held the rights to this tradition.

The Old Guard has honored America's fallen heroes by placing miniature American flags before the gravestones and niches of service members buried at both Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldier's and Airmen's Home National Cemetery just prior to Memorial Day weekend.

Although there are over 270,000 persons interred in Arlington, roughly 215,000 flags will fly this weekend in remembrance of the heroic and valiant efforts of America's fallen heroes.

Another 7,500 will be placed at the cemetery's columbarium. The discrepancy in the numbers occurs because several gravesites have more than one person interred at that location.

“The rain showers from earlier this week are much appreciated,” commented Sgt. Aubrey Wright of Delta Company,

“The ground is moist and it makes pushing the flags in a lot easier.”

Soldiers often use their Old Guard coins and place it in the palm of their hands to prevent calluses. Wright, one of the 1,246 soldiers in The Old Guard, along with his fellow soldiers generally makes record time of completing their section.

“Once we finish here in sections 10 and 12, we help out others,” said Wright.

“From start to finish, the task of completing Flags In generally takes four hours,” commented Staff Sgt. Luis Aguilar, a memorial affairs NCO for the Old Guard.

“We get a little help from the chaplains in the MDW area, each year they place flags in at Chaplains Hill, located in section two of the cemetery,” said Aguilar.

The only exemptions for soldiers not participating in this year's Flags In are those on temporary duty, enrolled in a military school or on a profile.

Even the regimental commander himself, Col. Thomas M. Jordan partook of the tradition as he placed flags in section 7A. “It's really a great honor to be allowed to do this,” commented Aguilar.

Outside the walls of Arlington National Cemetery, soldiers assigned to Company A, Commander-in-Chief's Guard place another 13,500 flags in at the Soldier's and Airmen's Home National Cemetery as well as covering several sections in Arlington National Cemetery.

Spc. Benjamin Yellott, of Company A takes a lot of pride as he goes into his second year placing flags in.

They [the veterans] deserve the respect,” proclaimed Yellott.

The word, respect and the force with which it carries sums up the annual event for the majority of Old Guard soldiers.

Respect for the unknowns interred at the Tomb were also given in a quiet ceremony as three flags were presented to the Unknown Soldier from World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

There wasn't much laughter in the air as the unit marched into the cemetery, rucksacks filled to capacity with American flags.

Soldiers paused to reflect on the names engraved on the markers, the lives led and the unsung stories of the many service members who came before them.

Old Guard soldiers remain on watch throughout the Memorial Day weekend to ensure all flags remain intact and erect. All flags are removed after Memorial Day before each cemetery opens to the public.

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