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It was two days before Americans would come together to honor our nation’s veterans when a small group gathered at Arlington National Cemetery in the early morning light. The cemetery was empty when they first arrived but by the time they would leave, a sea of fluttering Coast Guard and American flags would soon interrupt the pattern of white marble headstones and green grass.
Coast Guard members and their families had gathered at the cemetery for the annual Flags Across America event. Sparked Veterans Day 1999 by retired Chief Warrant Officer Ed Kruska, Flags Across America participants place Coast Guard standards and national ensigns at the graves of Coast Guardsmen.
“Our commandant has asked us to honor the manners of our profession. And really today is a mix of emotions,” said Vice Adm. Manson Brown, deputy commandant for mission support. “We are in this special place, this hallowed ground that we call Arlington National Cemetery. A lot of our Coast Guard shipmates from the past have crossed the bar. So as a part of the commemoration of veterans, we are also going to honor them through this Flags Across America ceremony.”
Through the years, the Flags Across America group has been able to expand from placing flags at just Coast Guard graves to finding graves of the fallen from the Coast Guard’s predecessor services, including the U.S. Life-Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service.
Kruska attended this year’s event and after placing flags at many gravesites acknowledged why it is so important for Coast Guard members and their families to honor veterans who have passed.
“That’s who we are,” said Kruska. “We remember our past. It’s a big part of who we are.”
Flags Across America continues to grow from earlier years and recruits from Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, N.J., were invited to attend the event for the first time last year. The recruits were able to join again this year and the experience served as a somber reminder of the sacrifices so many have made.
“One of the things I like about the regiment at Cape May is that we step on the regiment and there’s this feeling of history and remembrance. You get more of that, it’s a very solemn experience here, especially the changing of the guard ceremony…I think it’s important to remember where we come from,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashlee Wasowski, a company commander at Cape May.
Seaman Eladia Minton is stationed at Cape May and traveled by bus with her shipmates to participate in the event.
“It is important to see history before us and have it represented in front of us, to see all these people who have sacrificed their lives for us,” said Minton.
Spouses, children and veterans spread out across the cemetery to pay their respects each in their own way. Their actions also inspired younger participants as Sea Cadets and Boy Scouts joined in the commemoration.
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Reserve Force, Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Allen noted the importance of the youth participants at the event.
“Those young people are learning about our heritage, learning about our history, learning about the importance of honoring our fallen veterans in learning that our veterans cemeteries are sacred ground,” said Allen.
There are more than 20 million veterans living in America today. While Coast Guard members and their families joined together at Arlington to honor fallen Coast Guardsmen, there are many ways you too can show your support. Whether you visit your local veterans’ hospital and thank the wounded for their service or head to a cemetery to ensure the memory of our fallen lives on, the important thing is remembering those who have sacrificed so much to protect each and every one of us.
With contributions from Petty Officer 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando.