WALKER, MI — As the sun rose on Holy Cross Cemetery in Walker on a muggy Saturday morning, few, if any, flags were posted next to the thousands of veteran graves.
But between a grassroots effort and some social media fervor, rows of flags commemorating armed forces service began to rapidly dot the cemetery.
Cemeteries around West Michigan have been left without the familiar Memorial Day flags honoring the service people who occupy them. For Allen Noles, a sergeant with the Grand Rapids Police Department and veteran of both the Army and the Navy, that didn’t sit right.
Noles said that after getting a tip from a fellow officer that the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans Cemetery was without the usual Memorial Day honors, he visited to see what the situation was like.
“I get up there at 11:30 in the morning, and there’s maybe 200 flags posted out of 5,400,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘Man, we only have a week and a half to Memorial Day.’”
So Noles started placing flags himself, but it was a significant task. Looking around the cemetery, he saw that there was still plenty of work to do, so he asked for help.
Taking to social media, he created a video asking for community members to visit the cemetery, pick up some flags and help mark graves. The video received hundreds of shares on Facebook, a few thousands views and plenty of supportive comments.
“I was very surprised by how many people watched the video and how many times it got shared, and how many people it reached,” Noles said. “You know, there was people from all over West Michigan that had commented on the post and made comments like ‘This as a great thing,’ or ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’ And it was a great feeling to know that people still want to help.”
The help came in droves after the success of the video. Noles returned to the cemetery the next morning where he saw a sea of flags, with practically all of the work done since his first visit less than a day earlier.
“I thought that was pretty amazing and really showed the power of social media, but also how much people still care about honoring our veterans and honoring those who served our country,” he said.
But there was still work to be done, as the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans Cemetery was among several that had been unable to be decorated with flags for a variety of reasons, he said.
So again, Noles made a video inviting members to join the Catholic War Veterans at Holy Cross Cemetery the morning of May 22 to honor the veterans that lay there.
The turnout included Boy Scouts, veterans and community members with military ties and those who just wanted to help.
Mary Anne Dailey, who has been placing flags at Holy Cross for the past three years, said the support this year blew away that in years past. The plot of nearly 200 veteran graves that she handles annually would have taken her hours alone, but she was making quick time today with the extra help.
Outside of the those that help annually, the social media support drew new faces, like Matt Williams, who lives just down the road from the cemetery. After seeing Noles’ video on Facebook, he decided he “just wanted to help,” especially after hearing about low turnout last year.
As he marked graves, Williams said he made sure to take time to reflect throughout the morning. He placed a flag by a grave of a 100-year-old veteran, then moved to a tombstone of a solider who died during battle in World War II.
“Every (grave) that I put a flag on, I just make sure I read everything on it,” Williams said.
Also marking graves was Julie McKinney and her two sons, Dylan and Danny, who are Cub Scouts. She took the opportunity to continue to teach her sons about venerating military service and doing something to keep memories alive.
“We were talking earlier about how it’s hot today and it’s muggy, but you know, the people that we’re putting the flags on their graves, they were willing to sacrifice a lot,” she said.
But for seasoned flag-posters, the day can be a more emotional one. Veteran Ron Wikqrowski quietly said prayers for late veterans and soldiers he knew growing up or went to school with.
As Memorial Day nears, the tried-and-true tradition of marking graves with American flags is one that has always helped him and others to appreciate the sacrifice of servicemembers, he said. T
“These people made a lot of sacrifices for their country — you’re away from home even if you’re not getting shot at, you’re eating lousy food and it’s hot and you don’t have AC,” he said, about veterans leaving their families and risking their lives to preserve a way of life. “They went through a lot these guys.”
As patrons combed through Holy Cross with flags in hand, Noles said that while he never expected to have been the “face” of some of this effort, he was proud to see the turnout and shared support.
“We’re placing that representation of ourselves with great reverence next to the veterans grave, to let them know, let them and their families know that we honor and are thankful for their sacrifice,” he said.