Undeterred by safety concerns, volunteers will mark veteran graves with flags at Fort Custer
By SAMUEL J. ROBINSON | MLive.com | Published: May 21, 2020
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AUGUSTA, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — After learning Memorial Day flag placements were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, a local veteran took it upon himself to ensure American flags fly over the more than 38,000 veteran graves at Fort Custer National Cemetery on Monday.
Fort Custer National Cemetery, a 770-acre federal cemetery located at 15501 Dickman Road in Augusta, will not carry out its annual flag planting tradition this Memorial Day, citing health and safety concerns surrounding the typical volunteer effort to place the flags. Though the cemetery will remain open to the public throughout Memorial Day weekend, visitors are urged to comply with the governor’s stay-at-home order and to avoid large gatherings.
Richland resident David Bacon, 39, said, thanks to helpfound through social media, he and a group of community members have secured enough flags and enough volunteers to cover the entire cemetery this year.
After the Gull Lake High School graduate and U.S. Marine Corps veteran learned the cemetery would not be continuing its annual flag placing program, Bacon said he had no choice but to keep the tradition going.
“I called Fort Custer and they told me they weren’t doing the flag placing on each grave and obviously that was really disappointing, so I really wanted to do something myself,” he said.
Bacon bought 500 flags, a purchase that cost him about $170, then took to Facebook with a post on May 15, which was shared more than 100 times.
“Fort Custer national cemetery will not be doing flag placement this year due to Covid. Staff will not be placing flags either. \ufffcThis is unacceptable,” Bacon wrote in the post.
Bacon expected his friends and family to respond with words of encouragement or to chip in with a few dollars. He was not expecting community members and strangers to volunteer assistance like they did.
“Pretty quickly after I posted that, everyone started to message me asking if I need more flags and it just took off from there,” Bacon said. “I definitely wasn’t expecting this much of a response.”
Stationed in California and Iraq during part of his deployment from 2000-04, Bacon said Memorial Day traditions like flag planting make Fort Custer National Cemetery turn what is usually a place of mourning into a peaceful setting.
“It’s something that’s really important to me, being out there with fallen brothers and sisters, placing the flags, it’s a very humbling time," Bacon said.
Memorial Day weekend visitors should expect parts of the cemetery, like information centers or chapels, to be closed, according to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs COVID-19 alert regarding Memorial Day at National Cemetery Administration cemeteries.
“NCA is committed to observing Memorial Day 2020 in a manner that honors those who sacrificed for our nation while protecting the health and safety of visitors and our team members,” the federal agency said in the release.
Without the threat of coronavirus, the cemetery would normally work with volunteer groups to ensure flags are placed on all veteran graves and would invite the public to pay tribute to fallen military during a Memorial Day ceremony. Instead, the cemetery plans to hold a non-public wreath-laying ceremony, and will post photos and video on Facebook for others to watch.
The cemetery includes the burial places of an unknown Civil War soldier and German WWII prisoners of war, as well as local military personnel. Fort Custer National Cemetery is one of 142 national cemeteries spread across the country.
Another Gull Lake High School graduate and Marine Corps veteran, Jason Lemon, has volunteered alongside Bacon in past years, placing flags on veterans’ graves at the cemetery. He reached out to Bacon after seeing his post to see how he could help.
“I was thinking when I saw it was canceled, we needed to find a way to still make it happen, and I already knew David would be interested," Lemon said.
A phone call between Lemon and Bacon resulted in the creation of a GoFundMe page that has raised over $1,500 from 36 donors. Lemon said 100 4-by-6 flags can be purchased for about $25.
On Tuesday, Bacon posted to Facebook to share the community effort has helped the group purchase over 38,000 flags — enough to honor each fallen soldier at the cemetery.
Bacon plans to join with other local volunteers at Fort Custer National Cemetery Sunday at 9 a.m. to place the flags ahead of the holiday.
He said the volunteers will drive separately, meeting at the cemetery, and he plans to leave the flags on the bed of his pickup truck for volunteers in an effort to maintain proper social distancing.
Bacon’s GoFundMe is not the only flash fundraising effort that aims to place flags on graves at the cemetery.
The Almost Legal Truck Club has also raised thousands of dollars through a PayPal page — another effort prompted by the cemetery’s announcement it would not be continuing mass flag plantings across its graves this Memorial Day.
“The soldiers didn’t take a day off in duty and we shouldn’t take a day off to make sure this happens for them,” Wayland resident Richard King said.
A member of Almost Legal Truck Club, King, 28, said him and the group raised thousands of dollars. Dozens have responded to the group’s Facebook event for the Sunday flag placement effort.
“Between our group, active duty soldiers and even some soldiers right from Fort Custer, there’s a lot of people I haven’t met, but we’re all out there for a good cause and are going to make sure it happens,” King said.
King said he has spoken to other organizers like Bacon since launching the Paypal page, which was organized by his wife, Lacie King. It raised $4,385.80 before the combined efforts of the different groups reached the goal needed to purchase 38,000 flags. King estimated the price of the nearly 40,000 flags to be about $7,000.
The event description on Almost Legal Trucking Club’s Facebook page lists a 10 a.m. start time Sunday. But in an effort to maintain social distancing, King said volunteers will place the flags throughout the cemetery in groups of less than 10 and that they plan to arrive at Fort Custer National Cemetery at separate times spread throughout the day.
King said he does expect the 770-acre cemetery should allow for proper social distancing and hopes others will follow those guidelines.
Fort Custer National Cemetery declined to comment regarding whether the local group’s plans are at odds with the cemeteries coronavirus prevention measures.