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Volunteers' goal: A flag on every military grave for Memorial Day

Bob Fussner gets goose bumps when he sees American flags lining rows of graves at national cemeteries.

Fussner is a third-generation Marine who lives in Cleburne, Texas. He's a man on a mission. His goal is to see flags on all national cemetery graves every Memorial Day. In a telephone interview, Fussner said that he's visited national cemeteries for most of his life and has relatives buried in several of them.

"It upset me when I went to Dallas, and there were no flags there," he said.

His wife told him to quit moaning and do something about it. That's when he formed the nonprofit Flags For Fallen Vets Inc.

Every year, he solicits volunteers to help place the flags. Many from the Jacksonville area have responded to his plea.

In 2011, Fussner said 12 of the 131 national cemeteries did not have flags. In 2012, through his efforts, flags were placed at Dallas-Fort Worth's cemetery. That was one down.

In 2013, flags went up in Houston. That was two down.

On Sunday, more than 120,000 flags will be placed -- with the help of many Jacksonville volunteers -- at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell for the first time. They will remain there until Thursday. That will be three down.

In 2015, he will go after South Florida and Sarasota, the remaining two in Florida where flags have never been placed. Then it's on to the other seven.

Jacksonville tradition

At Jacksonville National Cemetery, flags have always been placed on Memorial Day weekend at the site of veterans' remains. Joe Covella Jr., a 20-year Marine Corps veteran and former drill sergeant, spearheads the operation. He's been doing it since January 2009, when the cemetery was created on Lannie Road near Jacksonville International Airport.

Last year, he expected 60 volunteers. About 250 turned out. It took only 15 minutes to set up the flags. As of March, there were 7,328 veterans and their families interred at Jacksonville National, he said.

As a Marine, national cemeteries hold a special place in Covella's heart; couple that with the fact that his father died in Vietnam and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Covella and other volunteers place the flags every Saturday before Memorial Day. Covella -- usually by himself, but sometimes he gets some help -- will pick them up on the Tuesday after the holiday.
"It takes me most of the morning, but I don't mind."

Covella likes to involve children in the flag-placing, saying it's a good way to teach them about Memorial Day, which honors America's war dead.

He starts at 10 a.m. with the Pledge of Allegiance and serves donated hot dogs to the kids afterward.

Covella is assisted by church groups, football leagues, Boy and Girl Scouts, veterans associations, other former Marines, churches such as Chets Creek and Fort Caroline Baptist, the Jacksonville National Cemetery Advisory Committee and Home Depot employees.

The cemetery's advisory committee buys some new flags each year, while some are donated by veterans groups and some are from prior years.

Covella also places 20 flags at the entrance to Evergreen Cemetery, which has memorials to Marines and Navy corpsmen. His grandson, Trey Simons, began helping him 10 years ago when he was 6.

Fussner created a website to recruit volunteers for Bushnell. A total of 3,000 signed up, with 300 on a waiting list. To his surprise, there were Jacksonville residents volunteering to make the 286-mile round trip.

Lifetime commitment

Ken Tuschhoff, a disabled Navy veteran who served at Cecil Field, and his 11-year-old son Matthew are two of them. Tuschhoff said he's willing to do whatever he can to help veterans and that placing the flags is a way of showing respect. And he can bond with his son.

"Anybody who signed up to join the military signed a blank check up to and including their life," he said.

He's not sure of the author, but it's always resonated with him and become his motto, Tuschhoff said.

Matthew said he's a history buff who's particularly interested in World War II. His mother also was in the Army.

At the Bushnell national cemetery, Fussner said the ceremony is an emotional one that involves saying the veteran's name aloud every time a flag is placed on the headstone.

"We encourage young people to come out and place them," he said. "Most have never seen a national cemetery."

Once approval is gained at the local, regional and federal level, fundraising begins. At Florida National, for instance, the startup cost is $92,000 in money and in-kind donations. The 8-by-12-inch flags, which have a 24-inch wooden staff topped by a gold spear, cost 43 cents each. In Texas, stores have donated thousands of flags or supplied storage containers, Fussner said.

When removed, the flags are taken to a warehouse to fan dry. Volunteers pick out the ones that are usable for next year. They will restaple, if need be, and replace broken staffs. Then they pack them in storage bins.

Fussner never gets tired of seeing the results of his mission:
"It's sad, it's emotional and it's amazing, all at the same time when you see the sea of flags."

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