Late on Memorial Day I left my apartment, walked downstairs, crossed the street, and entered a cemetery. I don't know the name of the burial field, but it's one of two near my house with neat rows of gray headstones shaded by willow trees. A few days earlier I noticed that someone had marked all the grave stones of those who served in our Armed Forces with 2-foot tall American flags. I presume it was the cemetery workers, but it could have been the local American Legion, or perhaps a Boy Scout troop. Back in Ohio, my troop used to raise and lower 500 flags at a veterans cemetary every Memorial Day and July 4th. I got very good at folding them into the padded triangles of blue stars that you see at military funerals. But this time I went to look at the flags, and the graves they adorned. I went looking for stories in the names, dates and records told in stone.
I found two markers grouped together sharing the same last name. The larger stone was for the mother and father, the smaller for their son missing in action in North Korea, 1952. The mother died in 1951. The son went missing a year later. The father, who served in the First World War, buried both and outlived them by a decade. Another stone showed a young man, 22 years old, killed as a 1st Lt. in Vietnam, 1972. His father served in the Second World War. All of the Civil War veterans in this cemetery, and there were many, died in old age, some living into the 1930s. They were the men with long gray beards, stiff legs, and faded blue uniforms my grandfather remembered marching in the parades. Each Civil War veteran's grave contained a separate plaque that noted their unit--like "Co. C, 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment." Some of the men buried near each other served in the same Union companies and regiments. I found several soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War. The small metal disc attached to the flag said "Cuba." Only a handful of veterans bured there served in the Navy. Same with the Air Force. Most were Army privates, T/4's, and other ranks I didn't understand. A few men served in both World War I and II, and several more in both WW2 and the Korean Conflict. Near the top of the cemetery I found an army private killed in 1944, though it didn't say where. For the most part, however, most of the World War II veterans survived the fighting and died recently. The golf clubs etched into some of the stone slabs told me about the recreational battles they had fought in their later years.
I spent an hour weaving through the cemetery looking at all the graves marked by flags. I stopped in front of each, and spent longer with those that memorialized men who had died in conflict. Besides the flapping flags, most of the graves had no flowers or other decorations. But they really didn't need anything more. Only a few details make it on to most grave stones: your name, the dates of your birth and death, perhaps a Bible verse, and whether you served your country during wartime. And though this last detail seems less significant than the others, it means so much more when you look upon a field of stones and see the flags, hundreds of them, standing at attention just as the soldiers buried there once did for their country.