WASHINGTON, May 27, 2010 — More than 1,500 servicemembers from the “Old Guard” and other ceremonial units gathered at Arlington National Cemetery today for a sacred ritual marking the start of the Memorial Day weekend observance.
The men and women, representing all the services and Coast Guard, carried rucksacks full of small American flags, performing the time-honored Flags In event of marking the cemetery’s more than 350,000 white headstones with the stars and stripes.
“This is one of the many distinct honors entrusted to the Old Guard,” Army Maj. Rosy Poulos, 3rd Infantry public affairs officer, said. “They’re out here until every flag is placed, whether that’s 6:30 or 9:30 [p.m.]”
Sgt. Patrick Smith, from the Old Guard’s B Company, has placed flags in the cemetery for the past three years. Though the work is repetitive, he said, he considers it an honor. “It’s a good way to honor the fallen, the ones who gave so many years of their lives, or their life itself, to the service of our country,” he said.
Smith said once he starts to see the headstones, and reads as he places each flag, a feeling of respect and reverence takes over.
“Once you start walking, and you see the headstones, there’s a certain connection, sort of an esprit de corps,” Smith said. “You see them and you get a feeling for how many have given their lives. It doesn’t matter what rank they held or what service they were a part of, each are treated as honorably as the other, they each get a flag.”
Staff Sgt. Rob Woodring placed flags for the first time today. At first he wasn’t sure what to expect, beyond the task itself. But he said it’s impossible not to feel a connection when surrounded by generations of servicemembers.
“These people all gave their lives to the military, and to our country, whether they’re here because they dedicated their lives to service or gave their lives in service,” he said. Flags-in has been performed annually since 1948 when the Old Guard was named the Army’s official ceremonial unit. The Old Guard includes the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Continental Color Guard and all Army funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. The flags will be removed early June 1 before the cemetery opens.
Each flag is centered precisely one foot in front of the headstone. Many soldiers use gloves equipped with wood, plastic, or metal plates to protect their hands as they place, on average, more than 230 flags each. Though some said they’d like a cooler day, none complained about the task itself.
“We’re part of something special,” Master Sgt. Kristine Zielinski said. “We get to honor our comrades.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)