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Following tradition, volunteers place red and white carnations at L.A. National Cemetery

Volunteers Aubrey Valdez, 5, and Mel Valdez, 25, place carnations at Los Angeles National Cemetery on Sunday.
Volunteers Aubrey Valdez, 5, and Mel Valdez, 25, place carnations at Los Angeles National Cemetery on Sunday.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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On the first Memorial Day — in 1868, soon after the Civil War — volunteers decorated the graves of Union soldiers with flowers.

The tradition lives on at Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood, where Ruben Rocha for more than a decade has organized a group of volunteers who, on the Sunday before Memorial Day, place red and white carnations at the graves of veterans.

This year, about 150 volunteers placed roughly 50,000 pairs of carnations at the cemetery, Rocha said.

The red carnations symbolize the blood soldiers shed; the white ones represent the “peace” they have achieved.

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“It’s a lot of work, but at the end of the day, it’s all worth it,” said Rocha, 67, a director of studio operations at Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City.

Ed Henneberque, 73, pays his respects.
Ed Henneberque, 73, pays his respects.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Rocha’s family has a long history in the military.

He served in the Marines as an infantryman from 1975 to 1984. His older brother Robert Salas Rocha was an infantryman in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War who died while on a reconnaissance mission in 1970. Their oldest brother, Rudy, was also a Vietnam War veteran, an artilleryman.

Both Rudy, who died in 2018, and Robert are buried at the cemetery, Ruben said.

“This place means a lot to me and my family,” he said of the cemetery, with its thousands of simple, white gravestones, visible from the 405 Freeway. “I consider all of these men and women that are buried here as part of our extended family now.”

Ruben started the volunteer group 12 years ago with about 1,000 pairs of carnations. By 2019, the group grew big enough to cover the more than 80,000 gravestones at the cemetery.

The pandemic halted the work in 2020 and 2021. But Rocha said the group is growing again, with his co-workers at Sony inviting others to volunteer.

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Vickie Lou Miller, 10, and cousin Robert Rocha.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“We also invite their kids to come in as well,” he said. “Because I believe it’s a great learning time for them, so they can understand why we live in a free land.”

Sony and NBCUniversal are among companies that helped pay for the carnations, which this year cost more than $15,000 this year, Rocha said.

He instructs the volunteers to read each name at the grave as they deliver the flowers and to thank the soldiers for their service.

The volunteers easily get hooked.

“If I can get you here one day,” he said, “you’ll be coming every single year thereafter, I promise.”

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