Too Many Flags on Memorial Day

I hate to admit it, but I hear voices.

Not everyday, just on one weekend a year, Memorial Day weekend. On that weekend, I go to the cemetery, visiting the graves of dead soldiers. I go with the local Boy Scout troop.

At the cemetery, the scouts plant American flags at each soldiers’ grave. One weekend of tribute to those who have given so much.


The scene is haunting. Row after row of flags…so many flags…dead soldiers from Vietnam, from WWII, even from the Civil War…and more recently, from Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds and hundreds of flags. It would almost be beautiful – all of those flags, gently waving in the breeze – stretching out as far as one can see – except for what the flags represent. And in that breeze, in the cemetery, that’s when I hear the voices.

The voices tell of lives that ended too abruptly. Parents taken away from their children, families shattered. You can hear the pain above the quiet flapping of the flags. And you can hear the pain in the quiet movements of visiting family members, their faces still twisted in sadness regardless of how long ago their soldier died.

The younger scouts run excitedly to hammer in yet another flag. They understand the flags are all about honor, but they are too young to hear the voices, to really understand the pain, the sacrifice involved resulting in all of those graves. When we finish, and look out at the sea of flags before us…that’s when it really hits you, the enormous cost of war…or of peace, depending on your point of view.

Once, when we were finishing up placing the flags, an older woman walked up to me with tears in her eyes. She put her hand on mine and thanked us for honoring the dead soldiers. I assumed her husband, brother or son was among the graves; I thought about that young man, how he must have felt so many miles away from the family he loved. How he must have felt, in a terrible place, doing terrible things. I thought, too, about the woman. She might have been much younger then…full of expectations and dreams. I wondered what she might have been doing, that day she found out that her soldier had been killed.

And what about today?

Parents of soldiers stationed overseas wonder if their child will be the “one soldier” killed in the latest news report.

Today’s troops are the living soldiers. Today, they are the ones in terrible places doing terrible things. They are risking their lives, missing the births of their babies, and putting their futures on hold…sometimes indefinitely.

I wonder how today’s soldiers feel on Memorial Day. I wonder what voices the living soldiers hear on a day when the dead speak so loud.

If you’ve ever gone to the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend, and heard the pain, you would want today’s soldiers to instead hear the voices of your support. You’d want to raise up your voice…not to chant against or for the war…but to show our troops that you care about them. Those are the voices I want to hear this year, a unified American voice of support for our troops.

Send a letter of support to a soldier or a soldier’s family (Operation Gratitude is one site that I know of that publishes info on how to contact soldiers). Hang a yellow ribbon or the US flag. Remember the emotional response we all had after 911…let’s see some of that flowing to our military. Give blood. Pray. Attend a Memorial Day tribute. Thank a soldier or their family. And yes, it is ok to want peace…or question a politician’s decision…just don’t forget that our military are over in terrible places, having to do terrible things, because it is their duty…and perhaps not even their choice.

As Memorial Day weekend comes to a close each year, the scouts return to the cemetery and quietly pull up the flags, folding them away carefully for the following year.

More flags will have to be bought. They always need more each year. More graves….more voices in pain…

As we leave, and look out at the stretch of green – now absent of the patriotic tribute – the cemetery seems quite empty. Only the pain lingers on. I guess I will hear the voices again next year.


Editor’s note: This was written many years ago and featured in a few local newspapers, when my sons were still in scouting… but I recently decided I wanted to post it here on my personal blog

You might be interested in reading this older piece as well.