Arlington's 'Flags In' becomes joint services effort
by Sharon Walker
Fort Myer Military Community
The placement of flags in front of tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery took on some new faces this year: the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard joined the Army to make "Flags In" a joint services event.
Flags In has been a way for young Soldiers to honor American veterans since 1948 when 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) was designated the Army's official ceremonial unit.
Flags In is impressive in both execution and effect.
The sight of Soldiers placing flags in the ground, front and center of each headstone, is as poignant as the result: the near perfect alignment of thousands of flags and headstones in the nation's most venerable cemetery.
Normally performed exclusively by Old Guard Soldiers, the other services were asked this year if they wanted to participate in Flags In, and they all said "yes."
World War II monument activities and the deployment of the Old Guard's Bravo Company to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa are just two missions competing for Old Guard assets in 2004.
Old Guard Soldiers also placed more than 13,500 flags at the Soldier's and Airmen's Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and provided patrols throughout the Memorial Day weekend at both locations to replace flags that are removed or damaged by weather.
About 1,200 Old Guard Soldiers were joined this year by 25 Navy, 10 Coast Guard, 35 Air Force and 66 Marines from their respective services' honor guard units.
Without exception, the service representatives said they feel honored to take part.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Washington Lopez said Flags In is a memorable event for his honor guard unit. "I feel like it's our privilege to go into Arlington and pay respect to those heroes."
Navy Chief Petty Officer Lucian R. Gucik said "Anything we can do for the Arlington shrine, we want to do it. We all feel dedicated and very respectful of the task before us."
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Clyde Paul and Coast Guard Petty Officer Joseph Kauffman echoed everyone, saying they hope Flags In will be a joint services effort from now on.
Looks seem to be everything with Flags In, but it is the planning and preparation that come together with soldierly economy and discipline that make it an event to hold in memory.
With military precision and purpose, each wooden flagpole of the 7-inch by 11-and-a-half-inch cotton flag was planted three to four inches into the ground, 12 inches in front of and centered on all headstones.
Flagstaffs were placed perpendicular to the ground according to the Old Guard's operation order.
Service personnel marched solemnly into the cemetery at about 4 p.m. Thursday and went about their task with mission-oriented simplicity that seemed to whisper of duty, honor and country.
Because an individual's foot gear is the measure of the distance between the headstone and the flag placement, one service member started and finished the same row.
Participating service personnel placing Flags In included some officers, for instance The Old Guard's Chap. (Maj.) Raymond Robinson was present, as were officers of all services -- but the annual commemoration is "An NCO-led event, and NCOs are in charge," said Old Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Harry L. Wimbrough.
"This is a shrine for our fallen heroes, and we perform this mission with dignity and respect. Arlington is an Army-run cemetery," Wimbrough told a joint services group at a planning meeting, "but we all bury our dead there, and I hope Flags In will be a joint effort from now on."
Sgt. 1st Class Timothy A. Harris, the Old Guard Truckmaster, coordinates all Old Guard tactical and ceremonial transportation. He is participating in his fourth "Flags In" this year.
In 1988, he was a private first class placing flags in front of headstones in Arlington National Cemetery. "At that time, we went into the cemetery very early in the morning, before the sun came up. It's very quiet. We placed 200,000 flags in," Harris said.
"Everybody's working and doing their part. You get into a rhythm. Older Soldiers had showed me the ropes -- wear gloves, carry a plastic drink top so you won't have such a blister on your hand.
"There are so many heroes in the cemetery, and you see their names, but you're working, going through, placing flags in.
"By the time the sun's up, we're walking out the gate," he said, remembering. "I looked back over my shoulder, the sun was coming up, and there were all those flags.
"It just leaves you speechless and proud."
Posted: 4 June 2004