Saturday, May 27, 2006


Planting Flags for Vets

Every year, Jane plants nearly a thousand flags on the Saturday before Memorial day. And people do or say the most astounding things.

The flags fly over the graves of veterans for a week, and then Jane harvests them. In her capacity as president of a local chapter of the "Ladies auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars," an office she apparently holds for life, Jane lines up volunteers, supervises, and manages an operation that may take four hours or ten hours, depending on who shows up.

Over the years I have helped my lovely wife whenever I'm not working those Saturdays. I have been cussed, insulted, called a liar and had the error of my ways pointed out nearly every time.

We use a simple method to place the flags. One or two volunteers carry a bundle of thirty or forty flags down each row of the cemetery. By every grave marker that identifies military service, we plant a flag.

The weather in Kansas varies greatly; some years the ground squishes underfoot, other years it breaks the little wood sticks that serve as flagpoles. Several years ago one of the vets welded together steel rods with handles, footrests and pointed ends, which we call "pokers." With a poker, we make a hole that we can put the flagpole into the ground even when it's like rock.

The boy scouts or girl scouts who help the elderly ladies of our VFW post enjoy using the pokers. Planting flags and picking them up count as service projects for the scouts, so we can usually get a least a half-dozen to help.

Once, a man shook his fist at me as I walked down the cemetery row. "It's disrespectful for you to walk over my Papa's grave," he yelled at me. I simply ignored him. I could have explained our task would become impossible if we tried to accommodate his concerns. Can you imagine walking around two or three hundred graves to plant flags, doubling the distance walked?

One day a woman told me for the amount of money I got paid, I should be doing a much better job. I said all the work was done by volunteers. She told me she knew the government paid for the work and supplied the flags, and that I was making a huge amount of money as do all government employees. Of course, in reality the VFW supplies all the flags; and they are an all volunteer fraternal organization. But how can you argue with someone who already knows you are a liar and is assured her version of Truth is correct (even though it is so wrong?) Why would you even attempt to set such a person straight?

Often, people visiting their relatives' graves would ask why no flag was planted by their loved one. "Because it's not marked to show he was a vet," was always the answer. "Don't you have maps showing where all the vets are buried?" is the usual response. Or sometimes, "I thought the government kept track of where all the vets were buried." Or, "You government people are so incompetent, didn't your office keep a map of where all the vets were buried?"

Sometimes people would ask me very nicely for a flag to plant on a grave. Even though I might get in trouble with the VFW AUX president, I usually would go ahead and give away the flag.

The worst headache is picking up the flags. Far fewer volunteers turn out, and the day is always pretty long. The flags must the bundled and counted. The worst thing is rain in the previous 24 hours; all the flags must be taken home and individually dried. I get involved more often in this project than setting them out because they are often still at it when I get off work at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday.

One year the cemetery operator picked up all the flags and tossed them in a heap in a garage. A couple of the vets got mad at the mistreatment of the flags. At least they them put them on a tarp. I had to drive over and try to deal with the mess. What really burned a few of the VFW people were the flags that had been unceremoniously tossed into the trash by the cemetery operator. You know, the proper way to dispose of a US flag is by burning.

For every ten people who complained, one person would thank me.

And its nice to be thanked, to be appreciated and recognized.

But we don't put out the flags because we are looking for approval (if we did, we'd be sorely disappointed.) We don't put them out because it gives scouts a service opportunity - opportunities to serve abound, and many needs go unmet.

Each grave marked with a flag contains the remains of a man or woman who served our country in the military. They risked their lives, they may have been shot at, known unimaginable hardships, or have been wounded or even killed in battle. They made these sacrifices for us, that we might be secure and enjoy the blessings of liberty.

We honor their memory and their service by setting the symbol of our nation to fly over each one, individually. We knowingly choose to honor them, fully aware of the meaning of our action as well as theirs. By bestowing this honor in this way, we show who we are, what we believe in, and we teach those who will carry on after we are gone.

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