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Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Special Saturday At The Massachusetts National Cemetery

More than 2,000 people planted flags by graves at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod on Saturday. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)

More than 2,000 people planted flags by graves at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod on Saturday. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)

I spent part of Saturday morning driving through the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod. Riding shotgun, a National Guard combat veteran from the war in Iraq. We were distributing plastic bins of American flags that would later be planted by the graves in sections six through 10.

A man named Paul Monti started Operation Flags For Vets after his son Jared was buried in this cemetery. Jared was killed in Afghanistan in 2006 while trying to save another soldier who was wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for that action. But when Paul Monti went to visit Jared’s grave on Veterans Day he noticed there were no flags on the graves. Cemetery rules prohibited them because the gravestones are flush with the ground and anything around them made it hard to keep the grass trimmed. Well, Paul is persistent. The rules were changed. And the first Operation Flags For Veterans took place before Memorial Day in 2011.

Joe Young has always wanted to come to the event and be a part of but Saturday was the first time he has made it. “I think it’s awesome that we got this many people that are coming and those that have come here in the past,” he told me, “because I honestly believe they don’t want these peoples’ sacrifices to be forgotten. And to just look up here and see all these people standing around, it just kind of brings a tear to my eye.” He shed a couple no doubt when he visited the graves of a two friends on Saturday.

The first Operation Flags For Vets attracted a few hundred people to the Massachusetts National Cemetery. On Saturday there must have been more than 2,000. People came by the busloads. The Rolling Thunder motorcycle riders were out in full force. The bins of flags were in huge containers that arrived on a flatbed truck. They were dispensed with military precision.

When it was over Paul Monti stood besides his son Jared’s truck, the truck he still drives and the subject of “I Drive Your Truck,” the song that won Song Of The Year at the Country Music Awards this week. Between puffs on a huge cigar he said, “It’s amazing. I’m glad I was able to offer the opportunity for people to honor the veterans. I’m overjoyed and overwhelmed.”

Saturday was a gloriously beautiful autumn day. I walked around a lot of the cemetery and just listened to what people were saying. Sometimes they were saying nothing. I went to Jared Monti’s grave. Someone had left their Purple Heart on it just like they did last Memorial Day. Maybe it was the same Purple Heart. I’m not sure.

I watched grey-haired Vietnam veterans place flags on the hillsides, along with Cub Scout troops and grandparents with their grandchildren.

A mother kneeled in front of one grave with her two little kids helping her place the flag.

Reading the inscription on the stone she said to them, “He was in the Air Force, just like your uncle Jeremy.”

  • Alex Ashlock is a producer and the director of the show.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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