Old Guard Soldiers Place Flags at ANC Headstones

By Kevin M. Hymel, Historian on 5/25/2023

The soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) never rush when they place American flags in front of headstones and niches at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) in preparation for Memorial Day.

The Old Guard leads the annual “Flags-In” event, which takes place on the Thursday before Memorial Day and also involves participation from the U.S. Marine Corps Ceremonial and Guard Company, the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard, the U.S Air Force Honor Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard. More than 1,000 service members take their time in placing the flags, reading the names on the headstones and connecting to those who served before them.

Before the sun had a chance to crack the horizon on May 25, 2023, the soldiers had spread out in various sections of the cemetery, their rucksacks bulging with bundled flags. As they worked their way down the rows of headstones, they placed a booted toe against each and pushed a small flag into the earth at their heel. Then it was on to the next headstone.

Some soldiers used flashlights to read the headstones in the dark. Others saluted if they noticed something particular, such as a familiar name, a similar combat unit or a gold-inlay inscription denoting a Medal of Honor recipient. “I’ve saluted three Medal of Honor recipients,” said Pfc. Tyler Morel, “but I’m honoring all the people who sacrificed their lives for our country.”

“Someone died on my birthday,” said Cpl. Joseph Harris as he pushed another flag into the ground. Spc. Chung-Tae Hong, who joined the Army from his native South Korea, looked for familiar names among the headstones. “I know some Korean names are in this cemetery,” he said. To Pfc. Cole Fayette, who has family members buried at the cemetery, planting flags means everything. “These people fought since 1775, ever since the Army was created,” he said.

“There’s a special one over there,” explained Staff Sgt. Brayden Trimble as he pointed to the back of a headstone with a large symbol. “That one’s a Tomb Guard.” Turning to the acres of headstones in front of him he reflected on the Army’s past. “You realize that this history runs deep,” he added. “It’s not just something that’s been going on for the last couple of years.” Indeed, this year marks the 75th anniversary of Flags In, which began in 1948 when the Old Guard was designated as the Army’s official ceremonial unit.

Maj. Bentley Phillips took pride in the job. “Being in the Old Guard is being part of history,” he explained. “We get to honor the ones who served.” Maj. Jacob Bagwell looks forward to placing flags every year. “When you see their name,” he said, “it’s just a little remembrance of their ultimate sacrifice.”

To other soldiers who served in combat or lost comrades to enemy fire, planting flags was personal. “It feels like I’m honoring a peer,” said Staff Sgt. James Kinney, who served in Iraq and Syria. “I recently had a friend buried here about two months ago,” he added. “It gets emotional.”

Staff Sgt. Antony Martinez visited the grave of 1st Sgt. Christopher Rafferty, who served as his first sergeant when he joined the Army in 2006, before Rafferty was killed in Afghanistan. “I didn’t deploy with him, but it was my honor to place a flag at his headstone,” Martinez said.

Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Kirk, who lost one of his sergeant majors to a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, also planted a flag at his comrade’s headstone. To him, Memorial Day means showing Americans how the military cares for its sons and daughters. “For those who make the ultimate sacrifice,” he said, “we’re going to honor them the right way.”

See additional photos and video of Flags-In: 

•  Photos, via Flickr

•  Video, via YouTube