A fire burned at Oakside Cemetery — its flames stoked with respect and honor.
Its tinder: an American Flag.
The Zephyrhills High JROTC retired dozens of flags by burning them, in a ceremony that included an Honor Guard and Saber Arch, and an atmosphere filled with reverence.
The flag ceremony was part of Project Patriotism. The 35 cadets taking part also cleaned hundreds of headstones marking the final resting spots of veterans buried in the cemetery.
The service and learning project is held each year to teach the cadets organizational skills, to foster community outreach, and to help them understand the benefits of volunteerism.
After the ceremony, Cadet Command Sgt. Maj. James Laferriere said:
“For us all being in high school, I thought everything went really well. With JROTC, we have a whole lesson on how to properly fold and handle flags, as well as properly retire flags.
“This (project) allows us to practice those methods and allows us to actively participate in our community,” said Laferriere, who is one of the few seniors in the squad.
The JROTC started Project Patriotism six years ago and it has evolved every year.
Last year, the squad cleaned the grave markers for the first time.
Over the years, the ceremony has grown and more flags have been retired.
There are five units in this JROTC squad — Alpha, Beta, Charlie, Delta and Echo — and each is assigned a different duty.
Some go out into the community to seek donations of flags to be retired.
Others meet with officials from the City of Zephyrhills seeking money to support the event.
This year, the city donated about $600 that was spent on cleaning supplies, meals and transportation.
“The city really came through for us,” said retired First Sgt. Jimmy McAuley, who leads the JROTC.
His daughter, Sgt. First Class Jasmine McAuley, is a sophomore at Zephyrhills High.
“The community knows about it, but the cadets go out and go to homes to ask for flags, and then come up with the ceremony and go to the city, so everyone has a job to do and they did a great job,” the JROTC leader said.
“It’s a humbling experience,” Laferriere added, “but we’re honored to do it.”
The ceremony commenced with the Honor Guard walking through a Saber Arch and the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance.
After that, several cadets, some in dress uniforms and others in fatigues, lined up and placed a retired flag into the fire.
Following that, several young cadets removed the top of their fatigues and fanned out into the cemetery, searching for the grave markers of veterans.
When they found one, they’d salute the veteran and then get down on their hands and needs with buckets of soapy water and brushes to clean away grime from the headstones.
“The ceremony, to me,” said Capt. Aiden Macumber, who led the ceremony, “is a way to honor those who have served.
“It means a lot, to me, because I had a lot of family members who were in the military. This is an annual tradition for our battalion, and I’m very honored to be in charge of this event.”
The act of cleaning the gravestones, he said, demonstrates that the cadets still care about the veterans, no matter how long they have been buried in the cemetery.
“We’re coming in here to make sure the (headstones) still look good, and it’s a great honor, in my opinion, because it’s how we say, ‘Hey, we still remember you, we’ll still take care of you and, of course, thank you’,” he said.
Published March 02, 2022