Memorial Day flag-planting at cemetery evokes strong emotions
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org May 26, 2013 6:16PM
Updated: June 28, 2013 6:21AM
After she planted a miniature U.S. flag in front of the grave marker, Martina Jackson affectionately tapped the top of the white stone and murmured, “Thank you.”
If she had not said it, her T-shirt already had: “To those who served our nation THANK YOU for all the freedoms we enjoy.”
Jackson, of Lynwood, was among the army of 350 volunteers who went Friday to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood to place flags in front of each of the 26,000 gravesites in preparation for Memorial Day. For many — dressed in patriotic colors and uniforms — this Memorial Day flag-planting has become a meaningful tradition.
They came alone or with groups, troops, families and friends, not only to say “thank you” but to show respect for the sacrifices of their brothers, husbands, fathers, sons, wives and for veterans they didn’t even know.
It was a day of emotion and memories, of serving and learning the true meaning of the holiday.
Jackson has been coming since her older brother Willie Thompson, an Army vet and Purple Heart recipient, was buried there in 2009.
“His service was so respectful, so dignified. I never experienced anything like it. I promised I would come here every year,” she said. “It’s so beautiful and serene. I will never lose my love and memories of my brother. He cared a lot about his country.”
Regina LeGrand’s husband died five years ago on Memorial Day.
“At the time, my daughter said, ‘He has his own holiday now,’ ” she said. “He was a Vietnam vet, and for awhile he was not proud of that. But he had gotten over it.”
As the Braidwood resident scanned the horizon, where all the uniformly placed white stones were now adorned in red, white and blue, she said, “It’s breathtaking. It brings a tear to my eye just being here.”
She and her daughter April were headed to the columbarium where his remains are kept.
“I sit on the bench and cry like a baby. Then I want to go up to him and give him a kick in the ashes,” LeGrand said, as she wiped her eyes and laughed.
“It’s amazing how much the cemetery has grown and expanded in five years,” April said observantly, while wearing a camouflage sweatshirt. She also joins others in December to lay wreaths on the graves.
Many just wanted to pay their respects to all these veterans, to let them know their lives will not be forgotten.
“It’s an honor to be here,” said Debbie Nylen, of Country Club Hills. “This is nothing compared to what they did for us.”
“I will be here eventually. My parents will be here eventually,” said Dan Duran, wearing his Army fatigues as he helped his young son Danny secure the flag’s stick in the ground. “It’s about paying respect. They are no different than I am. I will be doing this until I’m (buried) out here.”
Little Danny thought this patriotic experience was “cool.”
Under sunny skies Friday morning, the rain-softened ground made it quick work to poke the fragile wooden sticks into the grass.
Those who have done it before came prepared with gloves and metal sticks to poke a hole for the flag. Sometimes their hands hurt, but it was nothing compared with what these troops suffered, they said.
In about an hour, their mission was accomplished, but the sentiments of the day will persist.
“This is one of the best things we’ve done as a troop,” said Girl Scout Troop 70904 leader Kim Kursell, of Joliet, who also participated last year. “The girls were inspired and felt connected to the community. And they learned about Memorial Day. This really shows them what it all means.”
Karolyn Scott and her friend Lory Marunde, of Coal City, look forward to this every year. They planned to visit their husbands’ graves after planting flags.
“They suffered a lot and didn’t really talk about it,” she said.
In Marunde’s husband’s unit, 225 soldiers went in and only 20 — including her husband — returned, she said solemnly.
Scott planned to return at 9 a.m. Tuesday to pull out all these flags, noting that there are fewer volunteers for that effort.
“The pride and respect shown here is awe-inspiring,” she said.
Many lingered by graves, praying and talking to loved ones.
Flag-planting has become a family tradition for Joe Dunigan and his sons, Joe and Jake, of Green Garden Township, and his brother George, of Homewood. They spent some quiet time by the remains of Dunigan’s father Charles, a Korean War vet, whose stone was engraved: “Always in our hearts.”
“It’s really, really moving,” George Dunigan said. “You think you are doing something for them, but it benefits you more. It really makes you feel good.”
“It’s really good to do this,” 18-year-old Joe said. “It amazes me how many people show up who don’t even know anyone here. They really know what Memorial Day is all about. It’s not about sales.”
After planting the last of his flags, Menzo Kap, of Essex, choked back his emotions as he tried to sum up his feelings on this day: “There’s a lot of guys out here. They were willing to dedicate their lives.”