South Florida

For Memorial Day, flags for the fallen at national cemetery

The South Florida National Cemetery, this noble field of service and sacrifice, is the final resting place of thousands of veterans that served in wars as far back as World War II, of veterans buried as late as Friday. Their lives and deaths are marked by marble headstones, the beloved details etched.

On Sunday, the day before Memorial Day, under a canopy of blue skies, more than 550 community volunteers from across South Florida spent the morning placing American flags at the front of each of the headstones. More than 15,500 flags standing sentry over those who served the country, done for the first time since the cemetery in Palm Beach County opened eight years ago.

“This is what we want all of our national cemeteries to look like on Memorial Day,” says Bob Fussner, a Marine and founder of Flags for Fallen Vets, a nonprofit working to have flags placed at all national cemeteries for the holiday week. “This is beautiful.”

Before now, South Florida’s cemetery, with about 18,300 veterans and eligible family members from Key West to Vero Beach, was one of the seven remaining national cemeteries — out of 131 — that did not have flags placed by the headstones for the Memorial Day week. Since the 316-acre cemetery opened in 2007, it has marked Memorial Day by raising an “avenue of flags’” flanking the grave-site roadway entry and exit.

“Generally, this was something done by the veteran organizations but over time as those groups got older, some of these kinds of activities ended,” said Kirk Leopard, director of the South Florida grave site. “Although we support it and believe in it, it’s not something the cemeteries do except at Arlington because it’s a major expenditure of funds and hours and manpower. One of the biggest misconceptions is that we place the flags. The flag placing is a nice reflection of the community.”

That effort has fallen into the hands of the collective community. Word spread that Fussner’s Texas-based group was hoping to expand the flag program this Memorial Day to national cemeteries in South Florida and Sarasota. Last year, the national grave site in Bushnell was added.

“The moment I found out we did not have flags, I went to work, along with friend Benito Avendano to get the word out,” said Jose Arteiro, a former Navy Seal living in Palm Beach County. “For me, this is personal. If I were one of those fallen vets, I would not want to be forgotten. I would want to be remembered for the sacrifice I made for my country.”

Within four days, all of the volunteers needed had committed — hundreds more actually showed up on Sunday. In a month, the group raised about $13,000 but it was not enough to purchase the flags and storage supplies. As the deadline approached, Fussner was sitting in a bank in Cleburne, Texas, with a loan application when the phone rang.

“The woman asked how much more we needed. She said her parents were both buried in the South Florida National Cemetery,’’ he said. “And then she gave us the $4,000 we needed.”

On Sunday, two hours after sunrise, the groups began to gather. They were assigned specific sections and each individual was given 24 flags to place This is a ritual built upon the detail and the uniformity of the military. The flag — 12-by-8, polyester and cotton, sewn in Pennsylvania — was pressed into the earth about four inches, deep enough to allow the flag to stand strong, but not so deep that it touches the ground.

The Fort Lauderdale chapter of Dogs 4 Warriors, led by Patricia Rizzo, also answered the call. Their group, including combat veteran Rebecca Healy and her service dog, Ruger, made the trip to western Lake Worth. They were responsible for Section 37, near the entrance, filled with about 660 veterans and family members.

With a single American flag in hand, volunteer Dara Ryan approached the seventh row of Section 37. She knelt at the first headstone on the end, marking a U.S. Army veteran who had served in the Vietnam War. Ryan placed the flag a foot in front of the headstone and uttered his name, Richard Willson, aloud, for him, his family, his country.

“There is so much emotion when you read the names,’’ says Ryan, a police officer in Broward County. “You think about their lives and how much they gave up to protect us.’’

Before volunteers began placing the flags at 9 a.m., Erin and Dave Young, both Margate police officers, visited Section 35 where a dear friend, a U.S. Marine who had served in the Persian Gulf War, is buried. Solemnly, Dave pressed a flag into the ground until it stood just so. He said his friend’s name out loud: Michael T. McQuade.

“My father was in the Navy. My husband’s father was in the Navy. Since I was very little, I was taught to have respect for the veterans and what they did for us,” said Erin, who also made a donation to the flag program. “There are several veterans here that we were close to so it was important to us to be here for the inaugural year.’’

U.S. Army veteran Zachary Kruzan, a Dogs 4 Warriors volunteer, gave voice to the life of Leland Bergandi, after placing a flag at his headstone:

Leland Bergandi. U.S. Army. U.S. Navy. World War II. Korea. Vietnam. July 8, 1927. May 16, 2008. Loving Husband. Great dad and Pappa.

“May you rest in peace, sir,’ Kruzan said, rising from the ground. “They gave their lives. We can give a little time to honor them.”

To help

Volunteers are needed to collect and store the flags on Saturday, May 30, at the South Florida National Cemetery, 6501 State Road 7, Lake Worth, FL 33449. If you are interested, email Bob Fussner of Flags for the Fallen Vets at About 150 volunteers are needed.

Related stories from Miami Herald