A time-honored tradition to remember those who served

The four men came to Lutz Cemetery on a Saturday morning, with a cool breeze stirring the trees, and the sun shining brightly in the clear blue sky.

They got to work quickly, each grabbing a supply of American flags and staking out a segment of the cemetery.

Bill Garrison, commander of American Legion Post 108, marches through Lutz Cemetery, surveying gravestones of military veterans to decorate with an American flag in honor of Veterans Day. (B.C. Manion/Staff Photo)

Bill Garrison, commander of American Legion Post 108, marches through Lutz Cemetery, surveying gravestones of military veterans to decorate with an American flag in honor of Veterans Day. (B.C. Manion/Staff Photo)

The men — Bill Garrison, Ray Mason, Richard Fernandez and Jim Evans — worked their way through the rows of gravestones, looking for those marking the final resting place of men and women who served to protect American freedom.

While Garrison, Mason and Fernandez surveyed areas closer to U.S. 41, Evans checked out the rear section of the cemetery. Each time they found a veteran’s gravestone, they solemnly planted a flag at the edge of the gravestone.

Marking the grave with a flag is an act of remembrance, and of respect. It’s something members of American Legion Post 108 do at Lutz Cemetery every Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Veterans Day.

The flags remain until a day after Veterans Day, when the men come back to recover them.

The flags honor veterans from World War I, World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War. There’s even a grave of a Civil War soldier and another of a Spanish-American War soldier a soldier, Mason said.

The ritual of remembering men and women who served has been going on for close to 30 years, said Mason, the post’s adjutant.

Each time, they post about 200 flags. “We used to do more cemeteries, but membership dwindled,” said Garrison, the post commander.

As World War II veterans die, the post’s membership has declined. Now, the post — which draws its members from Lutz and Land O’ Lakes — has 97 members, Garrison said.

There are around 200 veterans buried in Lutz Cemetery, he said.

“There’s a lot of sacrifice here,” said Garrison, who served in the U.S. Air Force as a code breaker.

Fernandez, a past commander and the current financial officer for the post who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, said he takes part in the flag postings to honor those who have courageously served this country.

“Unfortunately they don’t get the honor and respect that they deserve,” Fernandez said.

Respect for veterans has improved, however, said Mason, who served in the U.S. Navy.

“Every once in awhile I wear my hat out, and I can’t believe the number of people who come up and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’” he said.

That’s a far different response than the one he received when he first finished military service.

“When I got out in ’65, everybody was against the war, all of that anti-Vietnam stuff,” said Mason, who did not serve in Vietnam.

He was surprised by the negative reception.

“I was taken back,” Mason said.

Evans, who served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam and during the first Gulf War, said posting the flags at the cemetery provides a sense of satisfaction.

“It gives you a nice feeling to have them remembered,” he said.

The men do the best they can to ensure they honor each veteran buried there. They look at the gravestones for any indication of military service.

“Sometimes it is just a little notation on there,” Evans said.

To make sure he didn’t miss any, Garrison kicks leaves off of graves, and scrapes off dirt. The other men made close inspections, too.

“I hate to miss one,” Evans said. “It really hurts me if I miss a veteran. We always make an extra sweep, and we always find some that we missed.”

Evans estimates he’s posted flags at the cemetery about 20 times. Sometimes, the work is easier than others. During the recent posting, conditions were pleasant.

But the heat can be brutal during the Memorial Day and Fourth of July postings, or sometimes it’s pouring rain.

“There have been times after a heavy rain where you almost sink,” Garrison said. “We slop through the mess.”

On the upside, though, “there’s no problem with putting them (the flags) in,” he added.

After they post the flags and complete their sweep, the men conclude by playing “Taps,” — a final tribute for those who served.

Published November 12, 2014

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