About 1,000 soldiers with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the “Old Guard,” kicked off the Memorial Day weekend yesterday by honoring America’s fallen heroes by placing U.S. flags at gravesites for service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery here and at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Established in 1784, the 3rd Infantry Regiment is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, according to the regiment’s website.
The ‘Old Guard’ soldiers fanned out across Arlington’s hills and valleys with rucksacks full of bundles of flags. They approached each headstone, centering a miniature flag exactly one boot length from the base before sinking it into the ground. They placed the flags in front of more than 280,000 headstones and at the bottom of about 7,000 niche rows in the cemetery's Columbarium Courts and the Niche Wall.
Army Pvt. Gabriel Thyfault, a truck driver with the Old Guard, said he and the
other soldiers were reading the names on the headstones where they’d placed flags.
“It’s a huge honor. I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Thyfault, who hails from Chicago. “I couldn’t be more thankful to be out here, putting a flag on every single grave in the entire cemetery. It’s such an overwhelming honor.”
Thyfault said his father served in the Navy, and his uncle served in the Air Force, both during Desert Storm.
Army Staff Sgt. David Rivera, a squad leader from Orlando, Florida, said he’s honored as well. The day was special to him, Rivera said, because he was able to place flags on the graves of friends who paid the ultimate sacrifice when he was deployed with them in Iraq in 2010.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. I’m only eight months into the Army right now, and I’m out here doing something this honorable. It means a lot to me and to my family,” said Army Pvt. Wes DeFee, an Old Guard medic from Charleston, South Carolina.
DeFee said his grandfather served in the Philippines during World War II as a medic.
"Flags-In" has been conducted annually since The Old Guard was designated as the Army's official ceremonial unit in 1948. Every available soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment participates, placing small American flags at each headstone and at the bottom of each niche row.
Army chaplains place flags in front of the four memorials and the headstones located on Chaplain's Hill in Section 2. Tomb Sentinels also place flags at the gravesites of the unknown interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Approximately 14,000 flags are placed at the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery. All flags are removed after Memorial Day, before each cemetery opens to the public.
The Old Guard maintains a 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, providing military funeral escorts at Arlington, and more.
“I would do this every single year I could until I retire if I could,” DeFee said. “It’s such an honor to help the families and support them with honor and respect.”
“We’re representing the Army and it’s a great honor,” said Army Sgt. Iwona Kosmaczewska, a medic from Queens, New York City. “We’re trying to do our best to show that honor for the families and veterans.”
Army Pvt. Inem Uko, a medic from Milwaukee, said he loves being a soldier.
“Every day, you wake up and you’re doing something big, and people look up to you,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility. It’s one of the best jobs you can have. I’m glad I joined the Army every day.”
Memorial Day, a day to remember and honor the nation’s fallen service members, is officially observed the last Monday in May.
“Take time to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, the ones who have served and given their lives for their country,” Thyfault said.
DeFee added, “All these people out here have given their lives for our daily freedom to live in this great country the way we do. It shouldn’t be taken for granted.”
“It’s a time to remember the people who died to protect our freedoms,” Kosmaczewska said.