As the nation celebrates Memorial Day and remembers America’s fallen heroes, military cemeteries will be awash with red, white and blue. Plans to prepare the graves have been months in the making.
More than 260,000 flags have been placed at graves in Arlington National Cemetery in preparation for events that will draw as many as 8,000 visitors. Up to 700 personnel from all military branches are needed to conduct Arlington’s Memorial Day events, which include a 120-man cordon at the cemetery’s gate, a 21-gun salute, laying of the wreath and playing of taps.
It’s an enormous task to prepare for the events.
Army Lt. Col. Robert Manning says it’s a job he takes on with great pride. As the director of Public Affairs for the Military District of Washington and Joint Force Headquarters, Manning and his team have spent the past six months preparing for Memorial Day.
Plans started in December to assign roles for “Flags In,” the all-military-branch effort that manages the placement of each flag at the gravestones, as well as preparations for security duties.
“They were my soldiers, my friends, my brothers and sisters in arms,” Manning said. “I continue to think about them and pray for their families. I think about the resilience of our military families."
Manning, who spent two tours and a combined 28 months in Iraq, says it is a great honor to be overseeing the task and to honor the dead.
“I don’t think the pain ever goes away when you lose a loved one…It is a privilege for me to wear a uniform and to be a part of something that is much greater than myself.”
Elsewhere in the nation, an army of volunteers has been deployed to prepare the other 131 cemeteries across the country that will honor the fallen.
Boxes containing 245,000 flags at the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale wait for the 2,500 volunteers to place flags at each grave. Families of the fallen also have donated 55 flags for the cemetery’s “Avenue of Flags” that will line its roadways.
In California, volunteers at Riverside National Cemetery will read the names of more than 5,500 veterans buried there since last Memorial Day.
At Great Lakes National Cemetery in Michigan, volunteers will help with a horse-drawn caisson to usher in a flag-draped coffin housing the remains of 17 unclaimed veterans who fought in wars from WWII to Vietnam.
Retired Army Command Sgt. Major Gilbert Cody, assistant director of Long Island National Cemetery, says Memorial Day ceremonies bring his life full circle.
Cody spent 26 years in the service – some of that spent in the Gulf War, as well as nine months in Saudi Arabia and a three-year tour in Germany.
“Being a veteran and having a veteran experience and knowing the commitment makes this very special to me,” he said. “I understand veterans and I know what makes them tick.”
Army Specialist Kit Lowe knows firsthand about the commitment and sacrifice.
Last Memorial Day, while deployed in Afghanistan, he spent the day remembering his fellow soldiers by placing boots and helmets at flagpoles and conducting 21-gun salutes.
This year he’ll be forced to sit the ceremonies out.
On patrol in Afghanistan’s Kapisa Province, he and others in the 108th Calvary Regiment were making their way back to base when sporadic gunfire broke out.
Lowe and another soldier were taking cover on a nearby roof when a bullet pierced his right leg. Lowe, a nominee for Soldier of the Year, would usually help the Georgia Honor Guard place flags at soldiers’ graves.
Six surgeries later to heal extensive nerve damage, nine months of rehab and the likelihood of more procedures leaves Lowe, 24, nursing his injuries this Memorial Day.
For now, he will visit family members and friends who died while serving.
“I’m sad that I can’t sit there and represent my state as a combat veteran. Before, I was just representing as a soldier,” Lowe said.
“Now, I get to represent my country with my combat patch and say that I’ve been in combat and I know what it’s like to lose a soldier.”
Back in Arlington, Manning said the hard work of troops and volunteers around the country is just a small gesture compared with those who have worked hard to keep our country free.
“Memorial Day is a time for Americans to take a clear look at our past and our future,” Manning said. “That one day a year that we can acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice made.”