As the sun rose over Arlington National Cemetery, a group of Coast Guard members and their families gathered. With steam rising from their coffee cups, they set out amongst the cemetery’s autumn leaves to perform the most humbling of acts – to honor generations of Americans who defended freedom.
From sea cadet to retired Coast Guardsmen, the diverse participants assembled at the cemetery to pay their respects as part of Flags Across America. The event is stripped-down from pomp and circumstance and is a simple tribute of Americans showing their gratitude.
“It’s blue jeans and warm clothing,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Jon Ostrowski, president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Chief Petty Officers Association. “It’s a great low-key opportunity for families to just come and learn something about veterans.”
But what the event lacks in flourishes, it most certainly makes up for in honor and reverence as servicemembers and their families visit veterans’ graves.
Sparked Veterans Day 1999 by retired Chief Warrant Officer Ed Kruska, the event continues to grow. For the first time, recruits from Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, N.J., were invited to attend the event.
Recruits from Sierra 185 and Tango 185 piled out of buses, taking in the crisp fall air. It was their first time off base since the start of basic training, but the fact they spent their liberty hours honoring servicemembers was an opportunity they embraced.
“You might think we would be disappointed because we weren’t going to get leave or liberty, but the more we thought about it, and now that we are actually here, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” said Seaman Recruit Robert Haas. “We are the first ones to actually get to do this, and it is such a privilege.”
“We are here representing the Coast Guard and to show these veterans we remember,” added Seaman Recruit Gillis Weaver. “I am proud we are the ones to be here and honor these veterans.”
As participants dispersed to place Coast Guard standards and national ensigns at each grave, recruits stayed behind and marched towards the USS Serpens Monument. The monument commemorates the largest single disaster suffered by the Coast Guard in World War II.
Recruits circled around the monument with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Michael Leavitt, reflecting on the granite inscription.
The monument is especially meaningful for Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Reserve Force Mark Allen. Of the 193 Coast Guardsmen who perished in the explosion, 176 were reservists.
“I really wanted the recruits to have a quiet moment of reflection at the monument,” said Allen. “I wanted them to assimilate a sense of their sacrifice and the tie they have in the long blue line.”
Spouses, children and neighbors spread out across the cemetery to pay their respects. But Allen hopes that his actions, and those of the Chief Petty Officers Association, will inspire others to show appreciation of those who have served and are currently serving. He urges others to seek opportunities to learn more about veterans’ history and to visit a local cemetery.
“It makes it more real than reading it in a book,” says Allen. “When you visit a historical place, take what you learn in your heart. Take it with you to remember those who have contributed so much.”