Rock Island National Cemetery readies for Memorial Day

Jacob Arms, 6, Patrick Armes, 16, and Ken LeMaster place flags on veterans’ graves Thursday, May 25, at the Rock Island National Cemetery on Arsenal Island. CREDIT DAVE THOMPSON

A Memorial Day tradition continued Thursday, May 25, as thousands of graves in the Quad Cities each received a small American flag.

About 300 volunteers placed nearly 30,000 of those flags on the graves of military veterans at the Rock Island National Cemetery on Arsenal Island.

Volunteers gathered at the cemetery late Thursday afternoon. They came from church groups, veterans organizations, the military and scout groups. And some just showed up by themselves because they heard help was needed to honor the country’s fallen heroes.

The volunteers may have come from different places, but many gave the same reason why they showed up to place the flags – they wanted to show respect for the veterans.

“I’m here to show respect to those who helped keep me free. … It’s great to see so many people here, young and older, all helping out,” said LuAnn Sharp of Davenport.

This was Ms. Sharp’s first time helping with the flag placement event. However, she has placed holiday wreaths on the graves for the Wreaths Across America program.

Another first-time volunteer was Kim MacDonald. “Why wouldn’t anybody want to be here? It makes me a little emotional being here. This place is just so beautiful,” the East Moline woman said.

The day was also an emotional event for the men and women in uniform who were helping place the flags in front of the veterans’ graves. Col. Daniel D. Mitchell, commander of the U.S. Army Garrison, Rock Island Arsenal, was one of those soldiers. 

“I appreciate the Quad Cities coming out to support the military. It warms the heart … I’ve lost friends in the War on Terror. It’s personal when you can put faces with names (on the graves,)” the colonel said.

The small army of Quad Cities volunteers started the afternoon off by getting a few instructions from cemetery workers.

Andy Straley, an official with the Rock Island National Cemetery,  suggested the volunteers team up in pairs of two. One person on the team would use a metal rod tool to measure where the flag goes – in the front, middle of the grave a few inches from the headstone – and also use the tool to place a hole in the ground for the flag. The second person places the flag in the hole.

He also had a few rules for the volunteers:

  • No running.
  • Don’t sit on the headstones.
  • If a grave already has decorations, be respectful. Move the decorations a little, if needed. But don’t discard them.

Mr. Straley also issued a request for volunteers to help pick up the flags beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday, May 30, at the cemetery.

The volunteers obeyed those rules and got all the flags placed within about an hour. They also were treated to hot dogs for their efforts.

By 5 p.m., thousands of those small American flags were in front of about 30,000 graves. The flags were in front of graves for Robert William McCarthy of Iowa, a World War II veteran, and Rubin Leonard Lund of Illinois, another World War II vet. A short distance away, the flags were also in front of the graves of Gerry Prosper Clark of Iowa, a Vietnam War vet, and William E. Whitemore of Illinois, a World War II and Korean War vet.

“This is important because these guys were willing to put their lives on the line. People should come out and support them,” said Kathy Schmacht of Cambridge, Illinois, one of the volunteers.

Ms. Schmacht is an Army veteran and her husband is buried at the cemetery.

All the volunteers’ hard work readied the cemetery grounds for the families who will make their way to the National Cemetery for a Memorial Day Ceremony on Monday, May 29. The ceremony will begin at 10:45 a.m. Main parking will be at the Memorial Park parking lot off East Street across from Building 102. 

The ceremony’s keynote speaker will be Davenport Mayor Mike Matson, a retired sergeant major and U.S. Army Ranger. The Veterans Service Organization honor guard will be conducted by Moline American Legion 246. 

The Center for Active Seniors Inc.’s (CASI) Golden Tones Choir will perform musical selections throughout the ceremony. The National Anthem will be performed by Rachel Hoffman, with an invocation by Rev. Scott Culley, Faith Walk World Outreach Center. The 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery Regiment, Milan, will conduct the national salute. Additional speeches, a moment of silence, the playing of taps, and a rifle volley, will also take place.

Parking will not be allowed at the cemetery except for individuals who are wheelchair bound. All other visitors will park behind Memorial Park in the large lot where buses will transport them to the cemetery. Buses will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Visitors are encouraged to arrive early to ensure enough time to park and be transported to the cemetery. 

Memorial Park is located off of the main Arsenal Island road, Rodman Avenue, at the corner of East Street. For more information, call (309) 782-2094.

Memorial Day represents a day of national awareness and reverence, honoring the military men and women who gave their lives in defense of the nation and its values, the Rock Island Arsenal said in a news release. Memorial Day honors fallen service members while Veterans Day is an opportunity for Americans to publicly recognize living military veterans. 

Originally known as Decoration Day, the day was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers and a day to honor the nation’s Civil War dead by decorating their graves. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief, Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 30 as Decoration Day by General Order No. 11. 

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May. The law took effect in 1971 at the federal level. In 2000, Congress established the National Moment of Remembrance on Memorial Day.

According to the arsenal’s release, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration operates 155 national cemeteries and 34 soldiers’ lots and monument sites in 44 states and Puerto Rico. More than 5 million Americans, including veterans of every war and conflict, are buried in VA cemeteries. Fulfilling President Lincoln’s call “to care for him who shall have borne the battle,” the VA also provides headstones, markers or medallions for veterans buried in state, territorial and tribal Veterans’ cemeteries or interred in private cemeteries. 

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