One grave, one tribute
Ft. Snelling National Cemetery stretches across more than 400 acres and it is impossible to stand anywhere without seeing at least one American flag. This is hallowed ground for many of the workers here who are also veterans. It is a reminder, they say, of the high price of freedom.
Steve Johnson is hammering in a pole that will hold one of about 900 flags in total to be on display at Fort Snelling. Not only will American flags go up, but flags from the 50 states and American Legion.
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Johnson eyes the posts to make sure they're straight. The white poles he hammers in shine in bright contrast to the emerald green grass. The white headstones, all the same, but bearing different names, stand like soldiers row after precise row.
Johnson served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. For him, putting up these flags is an act of respect for those buried here.
"This is my cemetery too. This isn't just my job. This is my cemetery. And I am proud to be working here, like every other veteran. This is a different category of people working out here. They're 90 percent veterans and they show it," says Johnson.
Jim Gemmell, who supervises the flag work, served in the Army. Gemmell says at one time, workers put small flags on individual graves but as the cemetery expanded, that was no longer practical.
"There's 170,000 people buried out here so if we put an individual flag at each gravesite, that would be 170,000 flags," he says.
So the cemetery began erecting what he calls avenues of large flags. The family of each veteran buried at Fort Snelling receives an American flag draped across their loved one's coffin. Gemmell says some of those flags end up coming back to the cemetery.
"The flags that we put on the poles are donated casket flags from people that have been interred at the national cemetery," Gemmell says.
Johnson says the cemetery workers take pride in caring for the flags because they know each one has a connection to the family of a veteran. He and Gemell each have been working here for about 20 years. Johnson says they feel that they're veterans caring for other veterans. He says these flags will be up for about a week but they're put up on other occasions such as when someone in active service dies and is buried here.
Caring for the flags means more than putting them up and taking them down. During the winter months, Steve Johnson and other members of the maintenance crew bring the flags and their poles back to their initial luster.
"Straightening the eagle that may have broke the flag bleeded, where the colors ran, the poles bent, so they're all back intact for the next season. You're going through 600 flags and you're going through one at a time," he says.
Last year, thieves stole about a dozen of the donated flags from the cemetery. But after word got out about the theft, about 300 families donated their flags.
"The flag is a symbol of what we're all about out here," Gemmell says. "As a matter of fact we refer to Ft. Snelling National Cemetery as a national shrine because our goal is to maintain these grounds as a national shrine."
The cemetery can be a peaceful, but emotional place. While on this day the sun peeks in and out of the clouds, a warm breeze stirs, the flags flutter, but there is also a heaviness that hangs in the air. Here and there stand brothers, fathers, wives, sons, and daughters, staring down at a vivid green patch of earth. Remembering.