BELFAST, Maine — The Ames Elementary School fourth graders fanned out across Grove Cemetery in Belfast Thursday morning, the red, white and blue American flags they carried making a bright pop of color against the gravestones and green grass.
It was their first class field trip since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the 29 students were on a mission — to put the flags on the graves of the people who had served in the armed forces. But they were also there to learn why this particular task matters so much.
“They say that a soldier dies twice — once on the battlefield and then again when their names stop being spoken,” Anthony Kimble, commander of the Randall-Collins Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3108 in Belfast, said. “We don’t want that name to die.”
Then, as Shannon Campbell, 9, of Morrill put a flag on the grave of Private Norman Trull, who served in the Army Air Force during World War II, she and two classmates solemnly thanked him, and said his name in remembrance.
“I think it’s really good,” Campbell, who wore sparkly sneakers as she walked around the cemetery, said. “Because it’s honoring the veterans that served for our country and our freedom. And they died for our freedom.”
From left (clockwise): Shannon Campbell gets instruction from Belfast VFW Commander Anthony Kimble on how to place a flag on a veteran’s gravestone at Grove Cemetery in Belfast; Morgan Bonin, a fourth grader at Ames Elementary School, places an American flag on the grave of a veteran at Grove Cemetery in Belfast on Thursday morning in observance of Memorial Day; At Grove Cemetery in Belfast, people are buried who fought in the Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II, as well as more recent conflicts. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
And even if the veterans whose graves they were marking did not die in the line of duty, it is still important to remember their service on Memorial Day, Kimble said.
“It doesn’t always mean they died in combat,” he said.
Adelle Robbins, 9, of Searsmont said that she thought it was important to remember the veterans.
“If they’re forgotten, it’s like they die again,” she said.
Memorial Day, which used to be called Decoration Day, originated in the years after the Civil War. With as many as 750,000 casualties, that war claimed more lives than any other conflict in United States history and was the reason why the first national cemeteries were established. By the late 1860s, Americans had begun to come together in the springtime to remember all those fallen soldiers.
“It was a day when graves were marked with flowers and flags,” Jim Roberts, the facilities manager of the VFW post, said. “It was changed to Memorial Day to put emphasis on the fallen and not on the decorations.”
Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971, and also serves as the unofficial beginning of summer. It’s important to people such as Kimble and Roberts that the true meaning of the day doesn’t get lost amid the excitement over barbecues, beach outings and a day off from work and school.
Representatives from the American Legion Post 43 in Belfast, the Patriot Guard Riders and Waldo County Sheriff Jeff Trafton helped shepherd groups of children around the cemetery to find and mark veterans’ graves.
At Grove Cemetery, people are buried who fought in the Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II, as well as more recent conflicts.
“This is a day we say thank you to those who are no longer with us,” Roberts told the students at the outset of the morning. “We are here to remember the veterans who have served this great country. We honor them by saying their name and thanking them for their service. We’re here to remember that freedom isn’t free.”
Fourth grade teacher Sarah Nelson said her school often collaborates with the VFW to do educational activities such as going to the cemetery to place flags on graves. The last time they were able to go was in 2019, she said, and even a couple of months ago, it seemed that pandemic restrictions would prevent them from going this year.
When that changed, and they were able to resume the field trip to the cemetery, she was excited.
“Our school has what we call ‘Paw Pride,’” she said, adding that those qualities are being responsible, cooperative, positive and showing grit. “Today, kids have the opportunity to practice their ‘Paw Pride’ within the larger community. It’s been fascinating, working with kids during the pandemic. We talk about frontline workers being heroic — let me tell you, these kids are also heroic.”
Noah Deetjen, 10, of Morrill, said that he had a good time searching for the graves of veterans, but his favorite part of the morning was saluting them after placing the flags in the ground.
“It was a great experience,” he said.