The sun began to rise as Coast Guard families, recruits, scouts and cadets gathered at Arlington National Cemetery. At 65 degrees with blue skies and the sun’s golden rays shining through autumn leaves, it was an iconic fall day; a day to honor the history, traditions and heritage of servicemembers past and present.
The attendees were assembled for the annual Flags Across America event. After comments by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Michael Leavitt, participants fanned out to place Coast Guard standards and national ensigns at the graves of Coast Guardsmen.
The event – first started in Veterans Day 1999 by retired Chief Warrant Officer Ed Kruska – honors the fallen and prepares the cemetery for Veterans Day.
“Since 1999 the event has grown from a mere handful of participants, including my parents, to having more than 86 Flags Across America chapters,” said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Reserve Force Mark Allen. “The event has even been carried out with Coast Guard standards being planted at gravesites in a number of different countries including the Philippines and Tunisia.”
While their impact has grown in scale, the humbling act of honoring generations before them has never changed. Each participant was there to pay their respects, including the littlest of attendees, like Alex Osetek. While just a toddler, Alex attended with his mother and father.
“This is something we did a few years ago, my husband and I, and it was so special and it was such a great opportunity and even though Alex is really young right now, this is something we wanted him to grow with an appreciation of,” said Lt. Jennifer Osetek, Alex’s mother and a reservist at Coast Guard Sector Baltimore. “We’ve tried to teach him from the very start and this is just a great way to really honor the people who have gone before us, and to make sure our Coast Guard veterans are always remembered.”
“It’s such a great thing to see the groups of Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Sea Cadets and the children of our servicemembers who have come out to support the event side-by-side with our veterans,” added Allen. “We hope that these children will grow up with a greater awareness and appreciation of what the Coast Guard does and obtain a greater respect for those that have passed away.”
Continuing the tradition started in 2011, recruits from Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, N.J., also attended the event. This year, recruits from X-Ray and Yankee companies 188 joined Flags Across America participants. Seaman Recruit Zachary Whittaker is a member of Yankee-188 Company. With two weeks left of boot camp, he was one of a dozen or so from his company selected to attend. He reflected on how special the moment was; a moment that was “hard to put into words.”
“It’s just incredibly special to be able to do something this important before we are even out of recruit training,” said Whittaker. “We’re here at Arlington National Cemetery doing something so important. This is something we are going to carry with us our entire careers; before we’re even out of boot camp, we had such an amazing experience. It’s just incredibly special. It’s a huge honor.”
Senior Chief Petty Officer Gregory Morris, president of the D.C. chapter of the Chief Petty Officers Association, reflected on the importance of junior members attending the event.
“The symbolism here is to recognize our fallen Coast Guard heroes and to give an education, a history lesson, to our young generation, so that they understand all the honors, traditions and respect that we give our fallen heroes and what it means to serve,” said Morris.
As morning turned to afternoon, coffee cups were emptied but the hearts of Flags Across America attendees were filled with reverence. Looking out across the cemetery, Coast Guard standards and American flags fluttered in the crisp fall air.
Petty Officers 3rd Class Lisa Ferdinando and Matthew Masaschi contributed to this story.