More than 2,000 volunteers are slated Sunday to fan out across Riverside National Cemetery to place miniature American flags alongside about 225,000 graves as part of a Veterans Day tribute that was almost canceled.
“Our goal is to create a community-driven event so people can come together to accomplish something amazing,” Brennan Leininger with Garden Grove-based Honoring Our Fallen said. “We try to incorporate learning aspects and help families grieve and honor the loss of their friends and loved ones.”
The flag walks are scheduled to begin about 8 a.m. at the cemetery Amphitheater, where volunteers will retrieve bundles of flags and then head into the cemetery’s 70 sections to plant the Stars & Stripes.
The endeavor is expected to last three to four hours.
The Veterans Administration initially denied “A Flag for Every Hero” based on ongoing crowd restrictions in federally regulated spaces to limit coronavirus exposure risks. However, Riverside National Cemetery Director Craig Arsell and Assistant Director Oliver Villalobos persuaded their bosses to compromise and grant an exception due to the importance of the holiday, Leininger said.
“Platoon” sizes will be capped at 50 per section to satisfy the VA.
The flag walks were canceled in 2020 because of the public health lockdowns. However, the placements were permitted this past Memorial Day weekend.
“Paying tribute to those buried at Riverside National Cemetery is truly an honor we should all take great pride in,” Leininger said. “I pray we all remember the value of our contributions are not measured by the number of flags we place, but instead by our inclusion of a much larger team. The emotional experience that results from participating in this event and seeing the flags blowing in the wind is what it is all about.”
Flag retrievals are set for the morning of Saturday, Nov. 13.
The walks were first organized in 2012 and typically involve a variety of organizations, including the Boy Scouts, police Explorers, Civil Air Patrol cadets and even union workers and their relatives.
When the efforts began, volunteers were able to reach only 21,000 grave sites. In 2014, organizers were able to procure enough flags and enlist a sufficient number of people to plant the Stars & Stripes next to just about all of the final resting places of individuals interred at the cemetery.
Since then, the number of volunteers has grown significantly, according to Leininger.
The honorably discharged U.S. Air Force serviceman and Anaheim police officer visited the cemetery in 2011 and was dismayed by how few flags were flying, prompting him to start the placements, with the help of the nonprofit Honoring Our Fallen.
Eventually, Leininger’s group joined with Riverside resident Mary Ellen Gruendyke to ensure all graves receive a flag. Gruendyke had contributed money and time to the effort long before 2012.
The 1,000-acre national cemetery is the third-largest of its kind in the nation.