ARLINGTON, Va. – More than 1,000 service members came out to Arlington National Cemetery in the predawn chill, hoisted backpacks overflowing with red, white and blue, and headed off through the endless rows of headstones.
Their mission Thursday was to plant hundreds of thousands of small American flags at the graves of the country’s fallen heroes – and to inaugurate a weekend of remembrance.
“It’s ensuring that our service to the nation in this cemetery continues in a larger sense,” said Army Capt. D.J. Taylor, who was among those planting flags.
“It’s making sure that for Memorial Day, we think about those friends that we’ve lost in combat, their personal stories, and we ensure for their families that we spend this time with reflection, ensuring that their sacrifice matters here,” he said.
Taylor is regimental headquarters company commander for the 3rd Infantry Regiment, traditionally known as the Old Guard, the Army’s official ceremonial unit. One of its duties is this annual “flags-in” ceremony, which planted more than 267,000 American flags Thursday.
Taylor’s company aimed to plant up to 30,000 flags in four hours.
Some soldiers walked in groups, pulling flags from their backpacks and planting them with military efficiency, each flag an exact boot-length from each headstone. Soldiers replenished each other’s backpacks as they ran low.
Other soldiers worked alone, lingering as they moved through the rows and pausing for a few extra moments at each one.
The ceremony is personal for Taylor, whose great-uncle is buried at Arlington and will have a flag placed at his headstone.
“I think it’s pretty special to ensure that for my family, personally, that you know, in a very small way his grave is taken care of,” Taylor said. “It matters.”
Taylor said the ceremony is a way for him to pay it forward, knowing that some day someone could be placing a flag at his headstone.
“For me, it’s in a very small way, the ability to say thank you to, ultimately, a member of someone’s family,” he said.
Old Guard Staff Sgt. Robin Barnhill was back Thursday for her second year at flags-in, to pay tribute and give thanks to the fallen heroes buried in the cemetery. The ceremony is one of the Old Guard’s responsibilities, a duty the North Carolina native does not take lightly.
She described the experience as humbling.
“With Memorial Day approaching, I know a lot of people they just enjoy the long weekend, extra day off, or whatever,” Barnhill said. “I think it’s important just to remember in the back of your head why we have this, you know, it wasn’t given. It was earned, and everyone out here that’s buried in the Arlington National Cemetery, it’s because of them.”