Flags In: Old Guard readies Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day

260K American flags placed by Arlington National Cemetery headstones for 'Flags In' tradition

The yearly tradition at Arlington National Cemetery takes about four hours — placing a small American flag exactly one boot-length from each of the 260,000 headstones.

Early Thursday morning, approximately 1,000 soldiers from the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment — also known as the Old Guard — took part in the “Flags In” tradition. Since 1948, when the Old Guard was designated as the Army’s official ceremonial unit, soldiers have placed flags in front of more than a quarter-million headstones, and at the bottom of about 7,000 niche rows in the cemetery’s Columbarium Courts and Niche Wall.

“We do this to commemorate our brothers and sisters who have gone before us,” said 1st Sgt. Brian Junga, who grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and now is based at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.

Soldiers from the Old Guard unloaded trucks packed with small flags, transferred them to backpacks and worked in groups, spanning the 639 acres of Arlington National Cemetery.

“How we do it is we take the bottom of our heel, and we put it to the actual grave, so it’s flush with the grave,” Junga said. “Then, where our toe is, that’s where we place the flag, so it’s one boot’s length away.”

Since some members of the Old Guard have different sized boots, one member would complete an entire row, to ensure uniformity for someone looking down the row.

Memorial Day’s special significance

While many Americans see Memorial Day as the unofficial start to summer, complete with beach trips and family gatherings, Junga relishes the chance to show respect and honor service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“We come together to honor our fallen,” he said. “The reason we’re able to enjoy these freedoms that we have is because of everybody you see before you.”

He was moved to place flags in the cemetery’s Section 60: “I do have some buddies who perished, in there.”

And, he sent a photo of a headstone with a flag in front of it to a family friend, whose loved one is buried in Arlington, but who lives far away.

“Yeah, go out, enjoy a barbecue, enjoy family time, but remember the veterans that gave the ultimate sacrifice for all these freedoms that we possess today.”

The Old Guard will remove the flags Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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