AUGUSTA, Maine — Mauno Kankainen, 89, and David Holmes, 84, both of Kingfield, carefully picked their way through the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery on Saturday morning, bearing an armload of small American flags to decorate the graves of the service members buried there.
They also brought the kind of can-do attitude that no doubt came in handy when they were serving overseas themselves in the U.S. Navy. Kankainen fought in World War II and Holmes served during the Korean War. The men had been flipping through the American Legion magazine when they saw another Maine veteran was looking for volunteers to place flags at the graves of the nearly 15,000 veterans buried at the four Maine Veterans Memorial cemeteries. So, they decided to do their part by adding to the undulating waves of flags that spread across the neat rows of gravestones.
“I thought it was a duty,” Kankainen, who has worked as a lumberjack, an electrician, a carpenter and a hunting guide, and who still is an avid polka dancer, said.
“I thought it would be an adventure,” Holmes, a retired educator, replied, adding that their wives are now living in nursing homes. “We’re both bachelors after 60 plus years of marriage. This is what we do.”
But it’s more than just a way to pass the time, the two said. By joining the small army of volunteers decorating the gravestones, they were able to help.
“This is useful. We still get to be useful,” Holmes said.
The western Maine duo were among at least 300 people who walked through the peaceful cemetery with buckets of flags. Organizer Don Simoneau of Fayette, a wheelchair-bound veteran who served in the Army in the 1970s, told the crowd of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, families, elderly veterans, bank employees and more that the point was not to distribute the flags as fast as possible.
“This isn’t a race,” he said. “You might be one of two visitors that the veteran has at their grave all year. Take a moment at each grave you flag and say ‘thank you.’”
The second visitor would be the person picking up the flags Thursday morning, he said.
Gov. Paul LePage and first lady Ann LePage also said a few words before the morning’s work began. The governor told the assembled crowd the Maine Army National Guard will not face a reduction. The adjutant general of the Maine Army National Guard, Brig. Gen. James Campbell, has been advocating for a plan that would see the state’s storied 133rd Engineer Battalion replaced with an infantry unit.
The controversial plan was originally floated by the National Guard Bureau as a means of absorbing cuts proposed in the Pentagon’s current budget request, which would see Army force levels reduced to their lowest level since 9/11.
“We are fighting to get more soldiers rather than less soldiers,” LePage said Saturday morning.
After official remarks, volunteers grabbed some flags and headed for the rows of stones. Sharon Arnold of Hampden has served as a Maine Troop Greeter for four or five years but said it was her first time decorating the gravestones.
“I especially enjoy welcoming home our troops. It brings me to tears every time,” she said. “It’s tougher when we have to send them off, but we’re always there to welcome them back.”
Linwood Young, 84, of Smithfield, served 26 years in the Air Force and took his time walking through the cemetery.
“I figure I’ll be here someday,” he said. “This is nice to see the respect they give to the military.”
One young man, Aaron Raye, 8, of Hampden, said that at first he had wanted to do fun stuff Saturday morning. But he darted from grave to grave with enthusiasm, sounding out the names and military service of the veterans at rest there.
“Their father and I are veterans,” Monica Raye said. “I want to show them why we have a three-day weekend.”