U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, places his coin on a headstone during Flags-In at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, May 21. Photo by Staff Sgt. Maryam Treece

The Old Guard Soldiers honor fallen with Flags-In tribute for Memorial Day

Soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) held a longstanding tradition known as Flags-In to honor the nation’s fallen Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery May 21, ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

The Soldiers placed small American flags in front of more than 228,000 gravestones, a tradition held since 1948. Flags were inserted at the base of 7,000 niche rows in the Columbarium Courts, Niche Wall and also at the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” and Chaplain’s Hill, according to Arlington Cemetery.

Carrying rucksacks full of American flags, TOG Soldiers convened to step foot onto the hallowed grounds May 21. The Soldiers entered in small groups, maintaining a 6-foot physical distance in accordance with COVID19 precautionary measures. Flags were carefully inserted a foot’s length in front of every headstone.

“Every flag is placed in pretty much the same exact location in front of each tombstone,” said Sgt. Darren Tinkham. “It’s just another standard that we uphold here to honor those members that came before us and our way of paying tribute to them.”

The Flags-In tribute shows Families that their loved ones are not forgotten.

“It is important for The Old Guard because it’s an honor that we get to take part in,” said Staff Sgt. James Masson. “We get to put a flag at the head of every gravestone in the cemetery to honor the fallen that have given their lives and service to this nation. I’ve done a lot in service for this nation and this is the most honorable thing that I’ve ever done in service to my nation. And I can’t express in words how truly important this event is (with) regard to honoring the service members that have given their lives in the past in service to this nation.”

This year’s Flags-In is Master Sgt. De Los Santos Ismael’s 19th and last tribute before he retires from the Army.

“I have lost my parents and people close to me,” said Ismael. “But to think that the fallen heroes have done in defense of their country and the Constitution, that I get a small part of that. It’s an albeit humbling experience; it’s very much an honor. This was a human being — a service member or Family member of that service member. And in some small way, we are all connected through the serving for the United States and the Constitution. In a very small part, I get to pay a very small tribute to that individual.”

TOG Soldiers may find the tribute comforting after losing a beloved Family member.

“It’s especially special this year, as it was last year, as I get to place a flag at the headstone of my infant son who’s buried here in section 12A,” said Chief Warrant Officer Scott Sobataka. “It’s humbling; it’s very humbling to be able to come out here, not just to place a flag at my son’s headstone but to place a flag at the headstone of America’s fallen heroes. It’s very significant to do it for my son.”

Some Soldiers feel that it is their duty to visit the gravestones of fallen friends who never made it back to their Families.

“As someone who is deployed multiple times … you come home … and I have friends who didn’t,” said Tinkham. “It’s kind of my way to come out here and still recognize the sacrifices they made for my country.”

“This is my third Flags-In,” said Masson. “I have two friends that are buried in Section 60. They gave their lives in the global war against terror, so it’s personally important to me for that reason.”

Having a faith has often bolstered the courage of Soldiers throughout history. Chaplain’s Hill in Section 2 commemorates chaplains who were killed in war since World War I and other prominent chaplains. Each year, TOG chaplains and Soldiers convene with National Capital Region’s chaplains to place flags at the four memorials and gravestones at Chaplain’s Hill.

This year’s Flags-In tradition continued despite Arlington National Cemetery’s closure to the public. That alone signifies how important the tribute is, according to Chaplain (Maj.) Joseph Mason, chaplain of TOG.

“For me, the idea of the cost of service and for our way of life … it’s about doing what’s right,” said Mason. “And the time that it takes and the effort that it takes is all worth it for us to continue to show our nation, to remind ourselves, and to remind those that have their loved ones buried here that they’re not forgotten.”

This Memorial Day, Arlington National Cemetery’s sea of flags reminds the nation of fallen heroes who fought for the country’s freedom today.

By Denise Lew

Pentagram Reporter