By DAVID JONES
Editor at Large
It all began with a simple request. Forty years ago, in 1972, the widow of a veteran brought a flag to Floral Haven Cemetery. It had covered the coffin of her husband when he was buried with military honors and the widow wondered if Floral Haven would fly it during the Memorial Day weekend. She was told it would be an honor. It is an honor that has grown exponentially.
This year, says Steve Moeller, director of community relations for Floral Haven, they will surpass 3,000 flags flying during the current holiday period. Most of those flags have draped the coffins of veterans, Moeller says, but not all. “A number of people, understandably, want to keep those flags as precious family keepsakes and still want their loved ones represented in the cemetery. For them we can provide a flag.”
For the years since that widow, whose name has never been revealed at her request, brought the first flag to Floral Haven, the cemetery has developed a reputation for going all out to honor America’s veterans. In the early days, when there were relatively few flags to be handled, the Floral Haven staff would handle the honors of putting out the flags. By 1989, when Moeller came to work in Tulsa, there were about 600 flags.
As the number of flags grew, Neva Jennings, a volunteer with the Indian Nations Council of the Boy Scouts of America, got 13 scouts to help with the lowering of what had become the Avenue of Flags on Memorial Day. Today, more than 1,000 youngsters from a host of groups manage to get the flags down in just a few hours. But more help was required and the Junior came to the rescue. In 1995, they began to help in raising the flags the Friday before Memorial Day. With the help of these volunteers, says Moeller, the raising and lowering of the numerous flags goes smoothly.
The flags have a pattern that allows friends and descendants of the deceased to quickly find the specific flag honoring an individual. The flags are divided into two groups listed alphabetically: the first group includes flags being flown for the first time; the second is flags that have been flown previously. A family pays for a flagpole and it insures the flags will be stored, cleaned and replaced as needed. The names of the veterans honored are written on the pole so they are easy to find. Among the deceased, says Moeller, are a number who have fallen in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moeller has nothing but praise for the way the military honors its own. “The government people are wonderful to work with,” he says. “They are always very caring and respectful.”
Caring and respectful is what Floral Haven will be for the veterans in its care on Memorial Day. Building on ceremonies that have been part of previous weekends, the cemetery will follow the following schedule:
May 23, 10 a.m. Volunteers from American Legion Post 308 will place flags on veteran’s gravesites throughout the cemetery.
May 25, 10 a.m. The casket flags of veterans donated in past years will be raised by cadets from area public school programs, family members and Floral Haven staff.
May 26, 10 a.m. Raising of newly donated veterans’ flags. Air Force Lt. Col. James Nichols will give an address.
Saturday through Monday, Memorial Week: A special banner will be provided for people to write personal messages of support for troops. It will be given to the Oklahoma National Guard for display in the war zones. Collections will be taken for Freedom Boxes by the Blue Star Mothers of Broken Arrow.
From Saturday through Monday, members of the Starbase Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol will reenact the “Changing of the Guard” at a replica of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Some of the participating cadets have received special training at Arlington National Cemetery for this event.
The names of the veterans buried at Floral Haven in the past year will be read over the Veterans Field Carillon Tower.
May 28, 5 p.m. The Boy Scouts will retire all the flags.
Then the folks at Floral Haven will start planning for Memorial Day, 2013.