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The tradition of setting aside a day to honor the nation’s war dead started after the Civil War. It was called Decoration Day then and on the first one in 1868 people decorated the graves of the Union and Confederate dead at Arlington National Cemetery. Cemeteries across the country are decorated just like that today as we mark Memorial Day 2014.
I visited one of them on Saturday. There are nearly 58,000 graves at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod and on Saturday volunteers placed American flags on each of them. It’s an event called Operation Flags For Vets and it was started by a man named Paul Monti of Raynham, Massachusetts. His son Jared was killed in Afghanistan in 2006 and buried in this cemetery. Because the gravestones are flush with the ground, unlike the stones at Arlington, the rules prohibited flags or flowers or anything that would make it tough to mow the grass. Paul Monti thought that was ridiculous and eventually he got the rules changed. So now before every Memorial Day, before every Veterans Day, people flock to the cemetery to place the flags.
Parents bring their kids. Grandparents bring their grand kids. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts come. People place flags on their loved ones’ graves just like Paul Monti did this weekend.
Paul still drives Jared’s old Dodge Ram pickup truck. A songwriter in Nashville wrote a song about it. That song, “I Drive Your Truck” was playing softly on the PA system after Operation Flags For Vets ended Saturday. But that’s not the point, really, Paul said to me. He said it’s not about Jared, it’s not about the truck, it’s not about the song. It’s about the men and women who answered the country’s call and made, hundreds of thousands of them over the years, the ultimate sacrifice.
They never came home.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. And if you're a regular listener of HERE AND NOW, you have probably heard of Paul Monti. He's the man who was interviewed on this show about his son who was killed in Afghanistan. And the interview was heard by a songwriter in Nashville who went on to write a song that was named Song Of The Year at last year's Country Music Awards. We'll get to that.
But first to Paul Monti who started a project in 2011 called Operation Flags For Vets. And over the weekend, as he does each year, he and more than a thousand other people place American flags on the 57,000 graves at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod.
LOU SMITH: I'm just looking for directions on where to plant flags.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Excellent. Well, here's where you are. You're here at the flag poll.
HOBSON: Lou Smith (ph) was one of the volunteers working with Paul Monti. He comes every year.
SMITH: It's a good thing to do. I'm a veteran myself. So it's, you know - it's the thing to do I think on Memorial Day. Once you did it - once you do it, I should say, you'll always want to do it.
HOBSON: HERE AND NOW's Alex Ashlock was also at the cemetery on Saturday, as he is every year. And he's with us in the studio to talk about it. Alex, remind us how this got started.
ALEX ASHLOCK, BYLINE: Well, Jeremy, it started with one flag planted by Mr. Monti. He did that on his son's grave at the cemetery. Army sergeant Jared Monti was buried at the cemetery after he was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, as you mentioned. Paul felt it was important that there be a flag on his grave for Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. But the gravestones at the cemetery, Jeremy, are flush with the ground, so there was a rule prohibiting flags above them - really prohibiting anything above them. Officials said it made it hard to mow the grass around them.
But Paul Monti's pretty persistent. He convinced them to change the rules. And now it's become this great tradition twice a year. All of these people come. Most of them don't know the Monti's in any way, but they come to place the flags on all these graves that are spread out over the many acres in this national cemetery.
HOBSON: And Paul insists that this is not about his son Jared who, as we said, was killed in Afghanistan. But tell us about Jared Monti because his story is pretty extraordinary.
ASHLOCK: He did an amazing thing in Afghanistan. He had joined the Army in 1993. He was serving in the war in Afghanistan in 2006. His unit was ambushed - attacked by a large number of insurgents. They were badly outnumbered.
One of his soldiers, Private Brian Bradbury, had been wounded, and he was out in the open bleeding to death still under heavy fire. Jared Monti tried twice to get to him, but the heavy gunfire pushed him back. He tried a third time. He almost made it, but he was hit and killed by a hail of bullets and also rocket-propelled grenades.
There was accommodation written after that battle and said that his heroism inspired his patrol to fight off that larger enemy force. For that heroism, Jared Monti was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
HOBSON: And President Obama presented that medal to Jared's parents in September 2009. Two years later, Paul started Operation Flags for Vets. But that is not the end of this story as we said. Let's listen to part of the conversation you had with Paul Monti before Memorial Day in 2011.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ASHLOCK: I think I have this right. Do you still drive Jared's truck?
PAUL MONTI: Yes, I do. There it is. Yep.
ASHLOCK: Tell me about that truck.
MONTI: What can I tell you? It's just - it's him. It's got his DNA all over it. I just - I love driving it because it reminds me of him. Though, I don't need the truck to remind me of him. I think about him every hour of every day.
ASHLOCK: It's a Dodge 4 x 4, Ram 1500. It's got the decals - the 10th Mountain Division, 82nd Airborne Division, American flags, bumper sticker for the Jared Monti Scholarship Fund.
MONTI: My gold-style plate on there. Go Army. Support the troops. And - though, it only gets pretty bad mileage, it's - I'm happy driving it. He's with me. But he's with me all the time anyway.
ASHLOCK: You've already put it a flag on your son's grave. What were you thinking when you did that?
MONTI: I was just thinking of him, you know, and how much I miss him and how proud I think he'd be that we're doing this for his fellow service members. I know he would've done something like this, but he would've done it in a very different way.
ASHLOCK: What do you mean?
MONTI: Well, Jared never liked any kind of notoriety at all. All his medals went in a sock drawer, and no one ever saw them. He never wanted to stand out. He wouldn't have done this in a big venue. He would've found a warehouse somewhere with an unlocked door and appropriated or borrowed some flags, come down here in the middle of the night, put them all in. And someone would've come the next day and say, wow, someone decorated the cemetery. That was the way he was. He never would've admitted it that it was him that did it because he did that his whole life.
HOBSON: Now, Alex, a songwriter in Nashville heard that interview, and then the song "I Drive Your Truck" was born. It was recorded by Lee Brice, and it won Song of the Year at the 2013 Country Music Awards.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2013 COUNTRY MUSIC AWARDS)
JAKE OWEN: And the CMA award for Song of the Year goes to - hear we go.
LUCY HALE: All right.
OWEN: "I Drive Your Truck."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DRIVE YOUR TRUCK")
LEE BRICE: (Singing) I drive your truck. I roll every window down. And I burn up every back road in this town. I find a field...
ASHLOCK: So yeah, that's the sound from the Country Music Awards in 2013...
ASHLOCK: ...Last year when "I Drive Your Truck" was named Song of the Year. And on Saturday, Jeremy, Paul drove Jared's truck to the cemetery again, as he does every year. And when I went over to speak to him as things were winding down, the ceremony was over, all the flags had been planted, people were basically leaving, "I Drive Your Truck" was playing softly on the PA system behind us as we talked.
They're playing that song. We're standing here not far from the truck, and we can hear the song. I don't think I've ever heard that song played here on this occasion.
MONTI: Never have. Never have. It's not about the truck. It's about veterans right now. And, you know, the song is wonderful and hopefully it's helped a lot of people around the country to deal with their grief. But today's not about me. It's not about the truck. It's not about my son. It's about those people who have sacrificed so much for our freedom.
ASHLOCK: And you told me last year, I think, that your goal really for this is to have one person for every flag. And I heard you say earlier you've purchased 10,000 more flags. So is that where you want to see this go eventually?
MONTI: I would love to see it go there, yeah. I would love to see 57,000-plus people here, each one with a flag. I know that'll never happen. But to see the thousand-plus people we had here today, yeah - heartwarming, very heartwarming. America does care. And our veterans have to know that. Our living veterans have to know that America does care. Grassroots America cares.
I probably shouldn't say this, but you don't see politicians here making speeches because that's not what our veterans want to see. If they want to come here on their own, they're more than welcome. But I don't invite them because this is not a political thing. It never will be as long as I'm alive.
This is all about veterans and only veterans. Today it's about the veterans that have passed, that have been buried. In November it'll be about all the veterans - those that have served in the past and those that are currently serving.
HOBSON: Paul Monti speaking with HERE AND NOW's Alex Ashlock at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod where today there are more than 57,000 American flags flying above the graves there. Alex, thanks so much.
ASHLOCK: You're welcome, Jeremy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DRIVE YOUR TRUCK")
BRICE: (Singing) I drive your truck. I roll every window down. And burn up every back road in this town. I find a field, I tear it up.
HOBSON: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Jeremy Hobson. Robin's back tomorrow. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.