It’s a simple act, but a meaningful one — placing a flag upon the grave of a fallen service member.
Thanks to the tireless work of several local veterans groups, organizations and families, there are now American flags above 1,635 military graves in Williamsburg ahead of the Memorial Day weekend.
On Thursday, dozens of members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4639, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 957 and American Legion Post 39 showed up to set 1,250 flags on the graves of former service members buried in Williamsburg Memorial Park.
Tom Monahan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 957, said flag settings such as this are important reminders of what Memorial Day is all about.
“We’re out here to honor the dead. Memorial Day is about the guys who are no longer with us, the heroes who never made it home,” Monahan said. “Barbecues and beach vacations aside, that’s what this weekend is all about, what it’s supposed to be about, remembering the fallen.”
For many who served in the military, making sure there are flags on local military graves is a duty, not just to fellow veterans, but as an opportunity for members of the community to pay their respect to local heroes, Vietnam veteran Henry Cleveland said.
“It’s an important responsibility to honor these men, deceased veterans who, in a lot of cases, were men from Williamsburg who gave their lives to this country,” Cleveland said. “Giving respect and honor to the service of those no longer with us, and especially those who paid the ultimate price, we owe this not only them, but to ourselves.”
For other veterans, such as Philip Rockefeller, it's more personal.
“One of my high school classmates, Ken, he joined the Army, didn’t even make it a year before he died in Vietnam. We graduated in ’68, didn’t even make it ‘til June of ‘69. He’s one of three guys just from my high school in New Jersey whose names are on the wall up in D.C.,” Rockefeller said. “Doing things like this, for guys, sometimes guys not too different from Ken, it’s cathartic in a way.”
Many of these same veterans will return for the local Memorial Day ceremony 10 a.m. Monday at Williamsburg Memorial Park.
Over in Cedar Grove Cemetery, another flag setting was organized by the City of Williamsburg, with groups including the Rotary Club of James City County, the Williamsburg police and fire departments, as well as several locals and military families from throughout the region showed up to place flags upon 385 military graves.
Bill Brown, caretaker of Ceder Grove Cemetery, said flag settings have been done in Ceder Grove since the 1920s, when they were organized by Daughters of the American Revolution and local World War I veterans, and that this year’s turnout was impressive.
“There have been a few years where there were only four or five people out here,” Brown said. “Seeing the community come out in numbers like this and pay homage to these veterans, it’s gratifying. Like the old saying goes, ‘As long as someone remembers my name, I will never leave,’ and if today is an indication, these men and women are in very good hands.”
Part of what makes Cedar Grove’s military graves unique is the variety of causes the dead dedicated their lives to, Brown said.
“We have soldiers, sailors, Marines and nurses buried here from nearly every conflict we’ve been involved in as a country,” Brown said. “We have graves from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, we’re one of the few Southern cemeteries to have both Confederate and Union dead buried here, we even have a few Buffalo Soldiers here, and it’s important we honor that history and their service.”
That sense of history is what brought Jennifer Allen, along with her children Lilla, June, Ira and Harley, all the way to Williamsburg from Naval Station Norfolk. As a military family whose husband and father, Master Sgt. Kyle Allen, is currently deployed aboard the USS Kearsarge, Memorial Day carries special significance.
What brought the Allen family out to Williamsburg, Jennifer Allen said, was to teach her children not just the significance of Memorial Day — something that tends to teach itself when you hear “Taps” played on post every afternoon — but the history.
“Williamsburg has a very special place in our hearts, because our country was born here, and as you can see looking around, Americans who have died for this country have been buried here since the very beginning of this country,” Allen said. “We try to teach our kids that history, and why it’s important we remember it on Memorial Day.”
To help drive that lesson home, the Allen family plans to come to Colonial Williamsburg over the weekend, while admission is free for military families.
Family is what Memorial Day weekend is all about, said Rodney Corwin, a representative of the Patrick Henry Chapter of Disabled American Veterans who has helped organize the event since 2013.
A retired Army staff sergeant, Corwin says a flag on a service member's grave may seem like a small thing, but for those who served, it’s proof that the American public has kept its most important promise to the American soldier: That the thanks of a grateful nation has no expiration, and for those who gave the last full measure of devotion, we will never forget them.
“A lot of us have family who served, but for those of us who served, those of us who lost friends overseas, the moment you put in the uniform, all these men and women became our family too,” Corwin said. “You never forget your family.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email email@example.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.