'Guys got bum wheels:' Fewer vets placing flags for fallen

A color guard representing all branches of the military prades into the annual State of New Jersey Memorial Day commemoration cermony at Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Arneytown NJ . ( RON TARVER / Staff Photographer ) May 24 2014
A color guard representing all branches of the military prades into the annual State of New Jersey Memorial Day commemoration cermony at Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Arneytown NJ . ( RON TARVER / Staff Photographer ) May 24 2014
Posted: May 25, 2014

Military veterans walk the cemeteries in the weeks before Memorial Day. J. Robert Wagner is one of them.

The 82-year-old Korean War radar operator searches for the signs that a fellow veteran is buried in a grave. Then he bends down and pushes a flag into a metal holder.

The volunteer duty is one that Wagner and his fellow veterans perform annually, providing the scenic backdrop at countless cemeteries.

But as veterans age, many of them wonder what will happen to a tradition that honors fallen soldiers on Memorial Day.

"It's too important to forget," said Tim Kraft, 66, senior vice commander of American Legion Post 372. Kraft places flags at Locustwood Memorial Park in Cherry Hill.

With every Memorial Day, the veterans groups who have long been a primary source of volunteers face a dwindling corps able to walk the cemetery grounds and place flags.

World War II veterans are dying at a quick pace. Others are too elderly and sick to walk the grounds. Younger veterans, fresh from their tours of duty, are often too busy adjusting to their return and raising young children, veterans service organization officials say.

"Every veteran organization is suffering the same," said Daniel Murray Jr., judge advocate of the Marine Corps League in Philadelphia. "Guys have bum wheels. Their hands are crippled with arthritis."

Of an estimated 21,973,000 veterans in the United States, about 413 World War II veterans die each day. The number of veterans buried at national cemeteries has increased from 57,072 to 81,530, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In Burlington City, American Legion Post No. 79 once had more than 400 members. Now there are 140.

"I did Laurel Hill [Cemetery] myself," said Carl Wooden, 81, post commander, "and that was 400 graves."

In many areas, the county veterans offices provide the flags and metal holders that are placed at cemeteries. Locally, most volunteer groups pick them up at the government offices.

Burlington County employs a part-time worker who delivers the county's 28,000 flags to the groups and also maintains veteran grave sites that weren't being kept up.

Many cemeteries and veterans groups enlist the aid of other volunteers to help out including scout troops, historical societies, junior ROTC youth, Sunday school classes, fire departments, Little Leagues, and ladies auxiliaries.

"People don't even think of how the flags get there," said Dan Keashan, spokesman for the Camden County Board of Freeholders, which supplies flags to volunteer groups. "[The flags] just seem to show up, and the cemetery looks beautiful."

On Saturday at New Jersey's annual Memorial Day commemoration ceremony, a sea of more than 40,000 flags graced grave sites at Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Arneytown in Burlington County.

In what has become a tradition spanning more than a decade, Boy and Girl Scouts - this year it was more than 1,000 from all over the state - gathered at the cemetery Friday to place the tens of thousands of flags on grave sites. At about 5 p.m., an ambulance siren was sounded, and the youngsters fanned out with the flags.

"It was an amazing transformation," said Kryn Westhoven, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. "You look out at the grounds. It goes from a green area to a sea of red, white, and blue in a matter of minutes."

The scouts earn a merit badge for their service at the cemetery, where more than 56,000 veterans and their families are interned.

Other outside groups help at cemeteries. Several years ago, officials at Riverside Cemetery in West Norriton Township panicked when they received a phone call informing them that their flags were still at county offices - a week before Memorial Day.

The veterans group that had always placed the flags at the 120-year-old cemetery hadn't picked them up.

So cemetery officials began calling around to ask local groups to help. A Harley Davidson motorcycle club volunteered and has been placing the flags ever since.

On Tuesday, 10 veterans representing the Vietnam Veterans of America Post No. 349 in Valley Forge, Disabled American Veterans Post No. 25 in Collegeville, and American Legion Post No. 901 in Jeffersonville met at the Jefferson Fire Company No. 1 in West Norriton to begin their annual effort.

They drove in a caravan to four cemeteries. Bill Keyes, commander of Post No. 901, transported the boxes of flags in his van.

"It does get difficult, because we're getting older and with age come sickness and the inability to walk," said Keyes, 68, of Norristown, who walks with a cane.

Older tombstones that are difficult to read complicate the task, along with military flag holders that have been stolen from the cemeteries, making it harder to identify veterans' graves.

"I worry about who will take over," said Buck Appel, 66, who still carries shrapnel in his chest from a mortar explosion in Vietnam.

At the Lower Providence Presbyterian Church cemetery, Appel bent over to brush away the dirt from the inground plaque engraved with the name of a Civil War soldier who earned the Medal of Honor.

Nearby, Michael Buckner, of Pottstown, pushed down flags. Perhaps the 36-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan is a sign of things to come. Buckner was the youngest in the group on Tuesday, and brought his 2 year-old son, Gavin, to help.

Some veterans group officials say they are seeing an increase in the participation of younger veterans.

Ralph Nealman, 71, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 349 in Valley Forge, says his children and grandchildren will volunteer after he's gone. Tracey Pennycuick, director of veterans affairs for Montgomery County, said, "There will always be enough patriotic people who see the need to honor our veterans."

Appel is counting on it. He said, "I just hope they're around to put a flag on my grave."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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