Nearly 2,000 Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and Cub Scouts from throughout the San Antonio area gathered Friday at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery for a poignant rite of late spring.
After a brief ceremony at the cemetery’s assembly area, scoutmasters and their troops dutifully began placing a United States flag at every grave covering the landscape at one of San Antonio’s most storied and hallowed landmarks.
The placement of the flags is a cherished tradition that marks the start of Memorial Day weekend in Military City, USA.
“We honor all people who have served in our armed forces, but Memorial Day is special to us and all our national cemeteries because we pay special tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country,” said Frieda Robinson, director of Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. “These people, most who came before us, are the reason we’re able to do what we do today.”
Working in earnest, the scouts completed their mission quickly Friday. By 6:30, there was a flag at each of the graves of the nearly 115,500 interred at the cemetery.
Robinson, 58, looked out her office window as she talked about the service the scouts perform each year.
“That tells me that hope is not lost in our history and our future,” Robinson said. “These children come out and they understand the reverence, the importance, of the folks that are buried here. I consider myself a fairly strong person, but if you want to see me tear up, wait until all these flags are out here. We have so much love and support in this community.”
“When I see that, it reminds me that none of us will ever be forgotten because of the legacy of these children. These children have been coming to on Memorial Day weekend year after year. They may not even have any family members buried here, but someone has instilled in them the importance of the folks who are resting here.”
The cemetery’s Memorial Day program starts with a musical prelude at 9 a.m. Monday at the assembly area located toward the back of the grounds. The ceremony begins at 9:30.
Established in 1926, Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery is the final resting place for 12 Medal of Honor recipients. The cemetery adjoins Fort Sam Houston and is on a tract of land covering 330 acres, 265 of which are developed.
“We have enough acreage that should hold us until 2060,” she said. “We do have a little more room to expand if we need to. A lot of the nationals are landlocked because many of the cemeteries were placed near the military installation that surrounds them, like here.”
Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery is No. 8 among the country’s 135 national cemeteries in interments. It averages 18 funeral services a day, Monday through Friday.
“We schedule every 15 minutes,” Robinson said. “Services last up to 30 minutes each. We have five committal shelters, so we do what we call committal services.”
Air Force veteran Renee Greer, an assistant scoutmaster with the Rough Rider District in San Antonio, has helped with the Memorial Day flag project for 15 consecutive years as a volunteer.
“We have a good number of military families, retired or active duty, in our troop, so this is a very special event,” said Greer, who served in the Air Force for 15 years before retiring in 2006.
Greer said the flag project is a good educational opportunity and community project for the scouts who participate.
“Many of them don’t know a veteran, don’t know a person in the military, don’t have any experience going to a funeral,” Greer said. “This is very much a learning opportunity, very much a citizenship opportunity.
“How do you give back to the community? How do you do a good deed every day? How do you make sure that the small things that you’re doing are the right things? It’s about making choices. They could have been somewhere else today, and they chose to be here.”
Asked if it takes her breath away to see flags at every grave when she drives out of the cemetery every year on the Friday before Memorial Day, Greer said: “For me, it’s more when you’ve got your head down and you’re pounding flag after flag after flag and you look up and there’s flags. It’s beautiful.”
Greer choked back tears as she spoke.
Army Col. Roger Shuck is scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 23 at Fort Sam Houston. One of the oldest in the country, Troop 23 turns 70 in August.
Shuck said he and the scouts discussed the importance of Memorial Day before they went to the cemetery to take part in Friday’s project. His son, Schuyler Shuck, a student at Texas A&M and an assistant troop leader, accompanied the group to the cemetery.
“It’s about giving back and memorializing those who gave their lives for our security over the course of a lot of years,” Col. Shuck said. “There’s a lot of history here. I told them beforehand, ‘Take a look at the dates and when they served, and then you get a real appreciation for the folks.’”
Col. Shuck praised Troop 23 members who placed flags on the graves.
“We have a great young troop,” he said. “They’re out there working hard. The best thing is that we have parents who are teaching them about giving back and service to the country, and what it means. That carries on because it means something.”
Patrick Rodriguez, scoutmaster of Troop 66, has been helping with the flag project for about 10 years. His son, Thomas, a member of Troop 66, was among the many who helped Friday.
“For us, it’s about coming out here and paying our respects to our fallen soldiers, and trying to give back to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Patrick Rodriguez said. “I did this when I was in scouting and it really touches me here (pointing to his heart) to know kids, the scouts, are here to volunteer their time and to give back to the community, provide some community service.”
As Rodriguez spoke, scouts could be seen placing flags at the last remaining rows of graves. A few minutes later, Robinson and her staff were well on their way to having Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery ready for another Memorial Day.
“San Antonio has been wonderful to us,” Robinson said. “We have such great people here. Their support has been fantastic."