An annual tradition that joins Vietnam Veterans together with area Scouts ensures thousands of fallen military heroes won’t be forgotten this Memorial Day.
Close to 6,000 graves throughout the county were adorned with American flags by more than 200 area Scouts and their families in anticipation of the holiday.
Planting flags instills respect in the younger generation for those who have served their country, said Ryan Holton of Pack 9 and Troop 9 in Winterville. A Scout leader six years, he has been involved in placing flags on Veterans graves all six years.
“It is important we respect the memory and the sacrifices of those who came before us,” Holton said.
Unofficially, Memorial Day is the herald of summer fun, but according to local Vietnam Veteran Levi Clemons, the holiday should be a time of retrospect.
His chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, No. 272 in Greenville, began the time-honored tradition of placing American flags on graves of deceased military members in Pitt County over 25 years ago.
Clemons remembers those early days as long and hard.
“When I started, the American Legion bought the flags for us and we put them out. Then, for a while, the Vietnam Veterans did it all,” he said.
“We never had more than 15 to 20 people, and it continued to drop off. When it was only two or three us, it took all day,” he added.
The organization recognizes all service members who have died, not just those who died while serving, dating back to the 1860s. According to Clemons, graves of soldiers who died in battle many times are indistinguishable from military who died of other causes.
As the years passed and the veterans became less able, the veterans’ group enlisted the help of Pitt County Boy Scouts and area ROTC members.
Clemons said they now depend completely on area Boy Scouts their and family members to place thousands of flags throughout five cemeteries.
“We are at the age now we can’t do it,” he said.
The VVA chapter provides and stores the flags, replacing and purchasing more as needed. It also gives an annual donation to the Scouts for their help.
“We can’t afford to pay them,” Clemons said. “We are not government funded. All our money comes from fundraisers and donations. Sometimes it can be a mess trying to raise money to just keep our doors open to help veterans.”
Jim Kittrell, unit commissioner with Troop 25 in Farmville, is the county’s liaison between the Scouts and the VVA chapter.
He said the chapter bought 1,000 flags this year to replace some that had become damaged.
Kittrell said placing flags is a top priority for Scouts.
“It’s very important that we honor those who have served and have passed on,” he said. “I make sure this event is on the Scouts’ calendars year-round,” so troops are prepared in advance.
Before the pandemic, Kittrell said they would have up to 250 people participate.
Traditionally, the Vietnam veterans cooked a hearty breakfast for Scouts the morning of, but for the past two years, COVID-19 has interrupted this delicious tradition.
Kittrell said the pandemic did not stop the Scouts from placing flags last year, or this year.
In 2020, Scouts wore masks and remained socially distant. The event was a success, despite the virus and fewer people.
“The veterans set everything up and folks showed up. We had enough Boy Scouts and adults to do it. We were very fortunate,” he added. Cub Scouts were unable to participate because leaders knew it would be too hard for the younger ones to not interact with friends.
“After a couple months of lock-down, it is hard to explain to 7- and 8-year-olds why you can’t go pile on top of each other. That would have been their first outing in several months. Now, it is less of a risk,” said Kittrell.
This year, with virus safety precautions relaxed, Cub Scouts were allowed to return and masks were not required.
“We made it so people could be spaced out to do different cemeteries, so everybody wouldn’t be there all at once,” added Kittrell.
The Scouts met at the Veterans’ Hut on Cemetery Road, behind Greenwood Cemetery on May 22 to receive instructions and arms themselves with flags.
After serving Krispy Kreme doughnuts, VVA members held a short ceremony about the significance of placing flags on military graves.
“They explained why the day is important and why it is important to honor Veterans,” said Kittrell. “A lot of Scouts now don’t grow up with parents or grandparents who necessarily served in the military.”
John Perkins Earp, is an exception. His father, Jonathan Earp, served in the U.S. Navy before he was born.
Jonathan served in the submarine engineering departments of both the USS Key West and the USS Cincinnati. Both assignments involved operation and maintenance of the nuclear reactor and propulsion plants.
“He was underwater for about five years,” Earp said.
Now a dentist in Greenville, Jonathan is married to Christian. Their two boys, John and Ash, are both Scouts, with Christian as their Scout leader.
Kittrell said before the boys dispersed, leaders talked to them about safety.
“We show them where and how to place the flags and where hazards are. We tell them to be sure and hydrate and watch out for broken monuments, fire ants, bugs and holes in the ground,” he said.
Veteran Clemons said he is grateful to the boys, family members, and leaders who turned out for the event.
“You could have been anywhere else today,” he told the gathered troops. “Thank you for your willingness to be here.”
Kittrell said his now 26-year-old son was in second grade when they started planting flags with the VVA.
“A couple of years after that, I became the liaison. It used to take us all day — until 5 or 6 in the afternoon to finish. Now we have enough Scouts and their families, it only takes a couple of hours,” he said.
Clemons said he realizes his VVA group will not always be around to help with Memorial Day tradition.
“We are a generation that is dying out. There are not as many of us as there used to be,” he said.
The average age of a Vietnam veteran is around 71, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Other veteran organizations will always be — because they continue to have [new] members,” he added.
He said the Greenville VVA has about 15 active members, with about 100 registered.
“We don’t know [yet] how many we lost from COVID-19, or who passed on without us knowing,” he said.
As Earp’s troop-mates placed flags on graves at Greenwood Cemetery, they whispered a quick, “Thank you for your service,” as directed by troop leader Christian.
Earp said he enjoyed planting flags.
“It feels very special, that’s for sure. It’s hard to explain.”
As he placed the flags, he said, “I was thinking about their service in the military.”