Apodaca: Flag project shows that 'no one is forgotten'

Now that Mom's been served breakfast in bed or treated to a day at the spa, why not look ahead to the next occasion and plan for something more meaningful to do than flipping burgers on a backyard grill this coming Memorial Day weekend?

After all, the original intent of the holiday tends to get a bit lost these days, what with all the department store sales and the enticing whiff of summer on the way. Sometimes, a little perspective is in order.

Memorial Day was declared a national holiday in 1971, but it arose out of an array of observances of our nation's war dead that took place in various places around the country since the Civil War.

Throughout much of that history, it was more commonly referred to as Decoration Day, reflecting the intention that the occasion be used to decorate veterans' grave sites as a show of gratitude and respect.

This year, a group of Orange County residents has taken that task to heart with its quest to plant as many flags as possible at Riverside National Cemetery. Carved out of March Air Force Base land back in the 1970s, the Riverside site is now the third largest and fastest-growing national cemetery, and is home to many monuments, memorials and the graves of several Medal of Honor recipients.

The flag project is the brainchild of Anaheim police officer Brennan Leininger, an Air Force veteran.

The idea came to Leininger last year, when he planned a Memorial Day outing to the cemetery with his family. On the way, he stopped and bought all the flags he could find at a Walmart.

But when he arrived at the Riverside facility, "I was saddened that over half the cemetery was empty" of flags, he said. "I told my wife that I was going to do everything I could to fill it."

Leininger contacted the cemetery management. He learned that there was no funding available to pay for Memorial Day flags for the approximately 225,000 grave sites. Some individuals and groups donated flags, he was told, but not nearly enough to adorn every grave site. Any attempt to make up the difference would be welcome.

So Leininger took up the cause of raising money to pay for as many flags as possible, and enlisted the help of police and firefighter associations, other veterans, and just about anyone else he could find.

The idea struck a chord. Word spread, and offers of support began pouring in.

I heard about the flag project from Gary Mathieson, a Corona del Mar Middle School teacher and Air Force reservist whom I've written about in previous columns. He was alerted to the plan by Patrick Bradley, also an Anaheim police officer, who serves in a reserve unit with Mathieson.

The flag project "just spiraled," said Bradley. "It just took off in a way we didn't even anticipate."

Also supporting the effort is Laura Herzog, founder of Honoring the Fallen, a nonprofit organization based in Cypress. Herzog is a former Department of Defense public affairs employee whose work involved assisting grieving military families. She was the one who held the hands of mothers who had lost their children. She also arranged honor processions when coffins arrived home.

After Herzog's job was eliminated last year due to budget cuts, she started Honoring the Fallen to continue to aid the families of deceased service members. Among the services the organization provides are bereavement assistance and a program to send Christmas and birthday gifts to children who have lost a parent in the military.

When she heard about Leininger's flag idea, "I fell in love with his project," she said. "I believe it shows that no one is forgotten."

Leininger and his brigade of volunteers found a flag company willing to supply 8-inch by 12-inch flags for 44 cents each, and waive shipping charges. So far, funds have been raised to pay for about 21,000 flags, but Leininger is hoping to place another last-minute order in the next few days.

Then on May 26, two days before Memorial Day, anyone who is available can drive out to the cemetery to help plant the flags. The plan is to meet at the cemetery between 8:30 and 9 a.m., and volunteers will receive their flags and marching orders. Among them will be several CdM students who are donating their time to the effort.

The flags will be collected on the following Tuesday and stored until next year, when Leininger plans to relaunch the fundraising effort and keep it going until there are enough flags at every grave site.

Why is a small, symbolic gesture like planting a flag once a year so important? I put the question to Leininger.

It's a matter of honor, he replied.

"I think we're kind of losing touch with that as a nation," he said. "It's something we need to bring back, that pride in our nation. We need to teach kids about the sacrifices made. Putting a flag on each and every grave site once a year — that's the least we can do."

Anyone who wishes to join in is welcome, but the window for ordering flags is narrowing fast. Leininger can be reached at brennan@dslextreme.com. I can't think of a betterMother's Day gift.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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