'Flags In' Tradition Honors Fallen Warfighters for Memorial Day
By Terri Moon Cronk
ARLINGTON, Va., May 25, 2012 - More than 1,200 soldiers with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, gathered at Arlington National Cemetery here yesterday to place miniature American flags on each of its gravesites and niches for the annual "Flags In" ritual that's been performed just before each Memorial Day for 64 years.
The Old Guard, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, is the Army's ceremonial unit and has honored Americans buried at the cemetery with the Flags In commemoration every year since 1948.
The regiment's troops placed the flags on nearly 260,000 gravesites and 22,000 niches, in addition to more than 14,000 graves at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., an Army cemetery for residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home-Washington.
Old Guard sentinels also placed four flags at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
The Old Guard's commander, Army Col. Dave Anders, was with his troops as they placed the flags, which are uniformly centered and situated one boot-length back from the headstone.
Anders placed flags in Arlington's Section 60, where some 12,000 service members who'd served in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, in addition to many warfighters from World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"I started in the rows of soldiers I served with and knew personally," Anders said, motioning toward a flag he'd just placed on the grave of a soldier he served with twice -- first, at Fort Benning, Ga., and later, in Afghanistan, in 2007. Anders said his father, and his great uncle who died in combat during World War II, also are buried at Arlington.
"This is like a family cemetery," he said. "It's a sad place but very [comforting]."
Yesterday marked Army Pvt. Krieg Bates' first time participating in the Flags In commemoration, at his first duty station.
"My family has a proud history of military service," Bates said solemnly. "It's an honor to come here today for those who sacrificed so much."
Old Guard soldiers feel honored by the rituals they perform, Anders said.
"We're the only unit that does it, and we are very proud of that," the colonel said.
Large groups of Old Guard soldiers carried rucksacks filled with 200 to 300 of the small flags, carefully placing them one-by-one along the long rows of white headstones.
Yesterday, Anders estimated the cemetery would have flags placed on every gravesite by 6:30 or 7 p.m.