More than 3,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines officially kicked off the Memorial Day commemoration last evening as they placed 265,000 miniature flags at every grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
The tradition, known as "Flags In," dates back to 1948, when soldiers of 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as "The Old Guard," began the annual Memorial Day tribute.
This year marked the fifth year company-size elements of sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen joined about 3,000 soldiers in placing a U.S. flag at the base of the gravestone and columbarium niche of every single servicemember buried or inurned at Arlington.
Yesterday afternoon, the troops fanned out across the cemetery's hills and valleys, carrying rucksacks bulging with bundles of flags. They approached each headstone, centering a miniature flag exactly one boot length from the base before sinking it into the rain-softened ground.
"It's hard to put all this into words," said Army Sgt. Maj. Russell McCray, The Old Guard's top noncommissioned officer. "We're here every day honoring our fallen heroes, and everyone buried here is a hero. But being here for this is something particularly special.
"It's an honor for everyone who is part of this. If you look at their faces, you can see that," McCray continued. "This experience out here will humble you, beyond a doubt."
Even Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Andres Yanez, who regularly supervises funeral details at the cemetery, called it an honor to participate in the Flags In tribute.
"We come here every day, but today is special for us," he said. "When I look out there and see all those flags, I know that I've been a part of it. I'm rendering honors to our fallen, and I hope that someday someone renders those same honors to me."
Almost five hours after emplacing his first flag of the day -- and admitting he "couldn't count" how many more he'd positioned -- Navy Seaman Shawn Palaszewski still hadn't lost his enthusiasm for the mission.
"We're here rending honors to all our fallen shipmates, and showing them that we care," said Palaszewski, a U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard member just 10 weeks out of boot camp. "These sailors and all our armed forces [members] have fallen for our freedoms, and we're here to pay tribute to that."
"This is such a privilege and an honor for me," said Army Sgt. Mary Jackson, of The Old Guard's Headquarters and Headquarters Regiment. "These people gave the ultimate sacrifice. I can only imagine doing that for my country."
Positioned at the columbarium, Marine Sgt. David Gray from Marine Barracks Washington directed his troops as they moved among the rows of niches. After returning from a deployment to Iraq, Gray called his first time participating in the Flags In tribute particularly meaningful.
"It's a privilege to be alive and able to support those Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country," he said. "We can't bring them back. The only thing we can do is honor them and pay tribute to them."
Like Gray, Army Staff Sgt. John Diggles, platoon sergeant for The Old Guard's H Company, said he considers the mission a special calling.
"Friends of mine are here, quite a few, so this is very personal," Diggles said, looking out over the rows of headstones. "This is a way of showing the remembrance of our fallen soldiers on such a special day."
As she looked out at the sea of flags fluttering in the wind, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer Bailey from The Old Guard's Fife and Drum Corps declared the landscape nothing short of "breathtaking."
"The impact is huge. It's very dramatic," said Bailey, who was participating in the Flags In ceremony for the sixth year. "It's uniform, and it's simple. And I think it's the uniformity and the simplicity that makes this so beautiful and so unique."
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service