Sixteen-year-old Southampton Boy Scout Nicholas Maddock trudged through the grass from headstone to headstone at Section 36 of Calverton National Cemetery Saturday morning. Stopping at each one, he bent down and visually judged a four-inch space away from the white marble marker, then strategically placed an American flag on a grave, making sure not to obscure the name chiseled into the stone. It was part of a yearly ritual and something he considers his job as a Boy Scout — honoring veterans.
“This is the least we can do, to come out here and pay our respects to veterans, to the country,” said Nicholas, one of about 15 scouts who travelled with Boy Scout Troop 58 from Southampton to the cemetery as part of the Suffolk County Council of the Boy Scouts of America’s annual flag placement event marking Memorial Day.
Hundreds of scouts and volunteers from other organizations placed flags at the grave sites of more than 200,000 service men and women and their spouses who are buried at the cemetery.
Ben Halsey, 11, said the event made him feel good “because it feels like we’re honoring our veterans that served in our country and we are giving them recognition for what they did.”
Due to the volume of volunteers, parents ferrying scouts lined up in a convoy of cars for hours before the event, to make sure the scouts were at their assigned posts on time. Once inside, a pack or troop was assigned a section, and then prior to the flag placement, they said the Pledge of Allegiance and observed a moment of silence.
“It’s a sign of respect,” said Paul Delzatto, 11.
After the brief ceremony concluded, the scouts were each handed a bundle of flags and they spread out over the grass in a wave of blue, tan, and brown, placing flags, methodically, in front of every gravestone. The section was covered in flags within 15 minutes, giving new meaning to the Boy Scout promise of doing their best.
But before the organized placements begin, scouts with family members buried in the cemetery are allowed to place flags in a private moment with their families.
“It’s really special,” said Kelly Glanz, whose father, Alan Dunkirk, a Vietnam veteran, was buried at the cemetery after he died in 2009. Glanz said she has participated in the event every year since her son, Dylan, 10, has been in school.
Glanz and her family also visit at other times of the year like the holidays and her father’s birthday, however, she noted the event is the only time of the year that the cemetery is congested, with cars piled up along the grass, and people spilling out on to the roadway.
“It’s amazing,” she said.
Calverton National Cemetery is spread out over 1000 acres of land nestled between County Road 25 and North Country Road in the wooded hamlet of Wading River. Despite its sleepy location, it is one of the busiest cemeteries in the United States. Calverton is considered one of the crown jewels of the National Cemetery Administration for both its location and design.
Notable Long Islanders buried at the cemetery include World War II flying ace Francis “Gabby” Gabreski, New York City Police detective and actor Edward Walter Egan, who was the inspiration for Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, and Navy SEAL Lt. Michael Murphy, who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan. More recently, Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing Technical Sergeant Dashan Briggs, who died in a helicopter crash in Iraq with seven others back in March, was interred at the cemetery.
However, the cemetery is also the final resting place to soldiers and sailors who do not have name recognition and their graves are not often visited, if at all, throughout the year, let alone on Memorial Day.
“[The flag placement] just puts things in perspective,” said Boy Scout Troop 58’s Southampton Coordinator Lynn Maddock, who has participated in the event with her husband and sons since 2012.
“They sacrificed a lot for us. We are only sacrificing — what — two hours to do all this and then go home?” added Mark Maddock.
United States Navy Corpsman Ernest Pinaud, Boy Scouts Committee Chair from Troop 91 in Ronkonkoma, who made the rounds to thank each scout for their service, told the group that when he joined the service, he did so with the intention of preserving the next generation.
“You know why I joined the service? It was because of you,” Pinaud said. He explained a lot of work is involved in the flag placement. There is a great deal of planning involved, he said, and the flags only stay up for a week before they are collected again and stored away for another year.
“They do a tremendous job,” he said of the scouts. “You don’t realize a lot of work is done during the winter. We do it every year, so it is easier, and next Saturday, we will be here to take [the flags] up.”
The flags are carefully curated in large wooden boxes — numbered for each plot section — that are stored at the cemetery until next Memorial Day.
For Caitlin Donohoe, committee chair of Troop 58, said the event reminds her that Memorial Day is really about honoring the men and women of the armed forces, not barbecuing and retail sales as it has come to be known in popular culture.
“Everybody is all barbecuing, and then you come here and it grounds you and makes you realize what it’s about,” she said.