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Time-honored tradition: Scouts place 1,100 flags in cemeteries for Memorial Day

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Carson McLawhorn, Cub Scout with Pack 9, puts a flag on a veteran's grave at Greenwood Cemetery on May 18, 2019. (Molly Urbina/The Daily Reflector)


By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Boy Scouts placing American flags alongside veterans' graves are far too young to recall a holiday known as Decoration Day. Many of their parents were born after Memorial Day became a federal holiday that is observed the last Monday in May.

Still, as many as 200 area Scouts and families continue the time-honored tradition of decorating graves of those who gave their lives for their country. The 1,100 American flags they placed on May 18 will remain at five Greenville cemeteries until June 1.

“For me this has always been the big service project of the year,” said Troop 911 Scoutmaster Pat O'Callaghan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. “Like the military, the Scouts are all about service to the community and country. … You can't put two greater organizations together.”

For decades, Scouts in Pitt County have partnered with Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 272 to ensure that veterans graves were decorated for Memorial Day.

While Memorial Day traces its roots to just after the Civil War, Boy Scout participation is believed to date back to 1951, when Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis, Mo., began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Similar observances now take place across the country.

The same “Good Turn” has been an annual event in Greenville for nearly four decades. Jim Kittrell, Scout leader for Pitt District Troop 25, has been involved for more than 15 years, beginning when his son was in second grade.

“This is a reverence for the veterans who have served and that we have lost. It's an important part of the history of this country,” Kittrell said.

“It's important because the Scouts need to understand what the veterans have done for our country and that they have sacrificed for the freedoms that we enjoy.”

That message seems to have gotten across to Troop 330 Scout Gibbon Powell, 11, who has been participating in the project since before he can remember.

“I've been doing it a long time,” he said as he searched for veterans' graves at Greenwood Cemetery. “I think it's important because these people died protecting our rights, and we should pay respect to that.”

In earlier years, placing the flags was a daylong effort, but as more volunteers have come on board, Brownhill, Cherry Hill, Greenwood, Homestead and Pinewood cemeteries can be decorated within about two hours.

Levi Clemons Jr., parliamentarian and former president of the local VVA chapter, said he and other veterans are grateful for the partnership. The chapter provides the flags, along with breakfast before troops set out for their work.

“We're glad that they're here,” Clemons said. “We can't do this anymore. The youngest Vietnam veteran is 63, so you can just imagine if it weren't for them, this wouldn't be possible.”

While the Scouts are responsible for placing the flags, some veterans accompany them and their leaders to Greenwood Cemetery, located across the street from the VVA chapter headquarters, to help point Scouts to veterans' graves.

O'Callaghan said that while many troop leaders, like him have previously served in the military, the interaction with Vietnam War veterans is beneficial to the Scouts.

“It gives them a face to this because they come out, they see,” he said. “That's what they get out of this.”

The Scouts do not seek recognition for their efforts. Kittrell said many veterans' families are unaware of how the flags came to be placed at their loved ones' graves.

“Folks aren't really sure (how flags got there),” he said. “Some families honor their own veterans, but some people probably think the City of Greenville does it.”

Occasionally, when Scouts go to retrieve the flags the weekend after Memorial Day, they will encounter families at the cemeteries.

“(They) tell them thank you for what you're doing,” Kittrell said. “It's a touching thing.”

It is a tradition that Clemons hopes will remain alive for many generations to come.

“We have to get our younger generation involved,” he said. “Sometimes we don't pass things down to our younger generation so they'll know.

“This goes way back in history, so we want to make sure that this just keeps going.”

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com and 329-9578.