"People in this country would not have the life they do without freedom," said Lulu Baer, coordinator for the John D. Sudduth American Legion Post 72's "Flags In" project at Warrenton Cemetery. "Members of the military give up their own freedom to ensure that we have ours, and we owe them big time."
An annual tradition that began in 1948 at Arlington Cemetery, Flags In is a time to remember and honor those who sacrificed their lives for the U.S. In 1986, a survey was done by the John D. Sudduth American Legion Post 72 in Warrenton to find where veterans were buried in the local cemetery.
"Warrenton is very patriotic, and what they did was get all these names and assign them, depending on their location at the cemetery, into about a dozen or so sections," said Baer. "We started with about 500-600 veterans' names and now have over 900."
The project was originally carried out by the members of the Legion until around 1989 or 1990, she said, when it was turned over to Boy Scout Troop 1171.
A Warrenton resident, Baer had been taking part in the project with her son, Abram, who served in the Marines and is now active duty Army, when he was a Boy Scout. When the Flags In coordinator left because his son aged out more than a decade ago, she took over. Sometime around 2014, the program was halted, but Baer didn't want to see it end.
"We basically recreated and revived this project out of nothing. It was a labor of love because I wanted to make sure our heroes were honored," she said. "My first instinct was that the project needed to be owned by the American Legion Post again, because I didn't want it to be just my pet project. It needed to be supported by a bonafide veterans organization, and so, it was adopted by them after it was restarted."
The Flags In project takes place twice a year, on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. A couple of months before each event, Baer sends out hundreds of emails to local groups, organizations and individuals letting them know about the project and requesting volunteers. She also coordinates with the media to get the word out.
Once she has enough volunteers, which is usually around 100 to 200 people, they meet at the cemetery to place the over 900 flags at the graves. The flags are removed two weeks later.
"Moser Funeral Home has been with us from the very beginning," said Baer. "They always erect one of their huge canopies for our teams at no cost to us, so I want to say a big thank you to them."
Volunteers come from Boy Scout troops, churches, youth groups, local organizations and general community members.
"It's a great way to serve your community," she said. "We often have members of law enforcement and the fire department, and it's a great way for the community to get together and get to know each other without regard to politics, race or class."
One of the more interesting groups that volunteers, she said, is the motorcycle club, Nam Knights, which came on board in 2020. The club was formed in 1989 to honor vets and police officers and has 78 chapters in 18 the U.S. and one in Canada.
"We've given away over $2 million in our 30-plus years of existence," said member Felix Rivera, a career Army man who has spent over 33 years serving. "I started out as a private and retired as a lieutenant colonel. I've had the privilege of serving in 13 U.S. states and in Germany, and did three combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. I've served in other capacities as well during my reserve time."
Although he is humbled when people thank him for his service, he said it's not about a uniform, per se.
"Service is about an attitude of trying to make your community a better place. And that's why Nam Knights got involved with this project. Not only does it uphold one of the elements of our mission, but we want to make Warrenton a better place," Rivera said. "We want to recognize those that, quite frankly, other than their loved ones, have been forgotten by most people."
He and his wife, Carmen, live in Gainesville and are members -- she as an auxiliary member -- of the American Legion Post 72.
"We would be remiss in our duty if we didn't offer remembrance to these people who came before us and who made the ultimate sacrifice," he said.
Baer added, "We owe them our respect and gratitude, and this is one of the simplest ways we can do that. It only takes a few hours on one or two Saturdays a couple of times a year."
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Warrenton Lifestyle Magazine. Read the issue here.