As veterans grow older, the next generation shoulders Memorial Day traditions
By KATE MASTERS | The Frederick News-Post | Published: May 28, 2017
FREDERICK, Md. (Tribune News Service) — It's 9 a.m. on Saturday, and a group of Boy Scouts are clutching thick handfuls of miniature American flags at the entrance to Resthaven Memorial Gardens north of Frederick. Simeon Nelson, their 16-year-old senior patrol leader, is giving out commands.
"All right, I'm going to get you guys to line up," Nelson said. "Everyone take a row."
Ron Layman, a Vietnam War veteran and the troop's scoutmaster, chimes in.
"Everyone remember where the flags go?" he asked. "Top, left-hand corner."
For the past five years, Troop 274 out of Frederick, Md., has marked the graves of veterans at Resthaven with American flags for Memorial Day, a task formerly shouldered by the local chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association.
Veterans used to take charge of most Memorial Day preparations, said Richard Cody, the chairman of the Resthaven board of directors, but many are now too old.
"Most of the Korea vets are in their 80s now," Cody said, himself a veteran of the Korean War. "Basically, they have more difficulty walking, they're not as agile, they're just less able to do that chore. They knew that eventually someone would have to take it over."
But standing tall in front of the cemetery with his Portuguese water dog, Gidget, Cody doesn't worry that the tradition might die out. For one, there are the Boy Scouts, who have dutifully taken on the role of memorialists. He also feels that honoring veterans is a custom valued around the world. One of his uncles, a World War II veteran, is buried near Omaha Beach at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Cody said. Every year, French children come out to place flags at the graves of U.S. soldiers.
"It's built into the core of our society," added Jeff Lasko, whose son, Mitch, is a member of the troop.
"We honor and respect and appreciate our veterans and I think that future generations will never lose that. I like to think that's American."
In addition to Troop 274, there are six other Boy Scout troops around the county that spend part of Memorial Day weekend placing flags at their local cemeteries, Layman said.
At Resthaven, the boys put up roughly 1,600 flags, but the county sees a total of around 6,700 at 28 different cemeteries, according to Bryan Hissey, the flag committee chairman for American Legion Post 11 in Frederick.
Hissey said the Legion has been putting up flags in Frederick County for close to 50 years. Members try their best to honor every veteran, including the unknown Civil War soldiers buried in plots scattered throughout the county and the African-American service members who largely went unrecognized in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.
Tony Wilson, chairman of the Frederick chapter of the Disabled American Veterans Association, heads the effort to place flags at three historically black cemeteries -- Bartonsville, Fairview and Hope Hill, all in Frederick.
Still, Hissey said, the weight of age is growing greater for older veterans. He's chaired the flag committee at the American Legion for at least 25 years, but wonders how much longer he'll be able to remain in the role.
"I promised the last committee chairman that as long as I was alive and healthy, I'd keep this program running," Hissey said. "I'm 73 now, and I can't do it for too many more years."
Back at Resthaven, troop members seem willing to shoulder the responsibility. Within minutes of starting, a wide expanse of graves are now dotted with foot-high American flags. It's raining, but many of the boys linger, reading the names on the headstones. Steven Patrick Spurrier, U.S. Navy. Austin A. Hauster, U.S. Army, World War II. Maximino Crespo, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam.
The boys aren't intimidated by the prospect of taking over the task.
"I mean, it's the least we can do, really," Nelson said. "They've given so much for our country, it's an honor to do it."
"It just makes me feel good," added Nate Jackson, 13, another member of the troop. "I mean, I don't know who else is going to do it."