Across Arlington National Cemetery last weekend, adjacent to each of the often stark white, simple grave stones, a tiny American flag has been placed into the ground as a tribute to the service and sacrifice of the nation’s fallen service members who rest there.
In advance of Memorial Day, soldiers from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) carefully placed the flags by hand, one by one, in front of each of the gravestones at the cemetery. This year more than 400,000 flags were placed in the ground.
“Every soldier will bring his or her ruck sack with them, and the ruck sack will be filled with small American flags that will be filled from prepositioned trucks throughout the cemetery,” said SFC Ryan Joseph, a drill master with the U.S. Army Drill Team.
“Once your ruck sack is filled, leaders will take their soldiers throughout the cemetery and begin placing flags at every grave,” he continued. “Then leaders will patrol through and spot check to ensure all the flags are dress-right-dress and everything is according to standard.”
Soldiers place flags in the ground as part of an event called “Flags In.” It’s a tradition that has happened for more than 40 years now. Joseph said this year is his third time participating in the event – and it may be his last.
“This being my third and possible final Flags In here at the Old Guard, it’s a very difficult time for me,” Joseph said. “Every time I come into the cemetery and see it, I have a different renewed sense of honor and duty, every day when I put on the uniform and I come to work, it’s easy to forget what you are serving for and those who made the sacrifices before you.”
But for soldiers who forget why they serve, and what their uniform means, a visit to Arlington National Cemetery can help them remember – and not just during Memorial Day, after the flags have been placed at gravesites.
“Every time you cross that gate and come in here, it reminds you,” Joseph said. “It is a very moving feeling to know that over half a million Americans that are laid here to rest have given their lives in service to this country. It’s very humbling. And I will remember this time for the rest of my life.”
Joseph said that soldiers do a row of gravestones by putting their toe against the center of the stone, and then placing the flag at their heel. In that way, every row has the flags placed equidistant from the stone, giving a uniform appearance.
He said as soldiers head out for a three-day weekend, for barbecues and time with their families, they should “remember the sacrifices of the men and women of this great country … just keep that in mind.”