Decorating graves of veterans with flags is Memorial Day tradition of American Legion

By Rozella Hardin

   Dean Perry may not know where all of Carter County's veterans are buried, but he knows where most of the cemeteries are located. For the past several years, Perry has joined his American Legion comrades in placing small American flags on the graves of all known veterans in the county on Memorial Day.
   A veteran of both World War II and the Korean Conflict, Perry presently serves as Commander of American Legion Post No. 48 in Elizabethton.
   With Memorial Day just days away, the resting places of our county's veterans are much on Perry's mind. On Sunday at 6:30 a.m., Perry will meet with a small, but determined army of old veterans at Hardee's, and from there they will divide up and go to every cemetery in Carter County where a known veteran is buried and decorate the grave with a small American flag.
   It's something the American Legion has been doing for years. "Every year we seem to pick up more cemeteries, some I didn't even know existed," said Perry. Before the day is over the Legionnaires will have decorated approximately 6,000 graves with American flags. "Generally, I go up Stoney Creek. I have the help of Doug Buckles, who knows the area well and where most of the cemeteries in that area are located. Among the larger cemeteries on Stoney Creek are the Caldwell Springs Cemetery, Buckles Cemetery, Richardson Cemetery, Blevins Cemetery, as well as a dozen or so small family cemeteries," he said. "Some of the cemeteries are very difficult to get to; a few are very old and have for the most part been abandoned," Perry said.
   "There have been some Memorial Days, we have worked in the rain," he said.
   Last year, after Perry finished up Stoney Creek, a lady called to tell him about a veteran's grave on the top of Ripshin Mountain. "I drove all the way to Ripshin for that one grave, but it was well worth it, as it is one of the most scenic and beautiful places in the county," he exclaimed.
   Perhaps the most difficult part of Perry's job is rounding up volunteers and identifying the graves of veterans. "We usually have about 35 or 40 people, who show up to help with the project. Sometimes, it's hard to identify the grave of a veteran as their stone is so old and weather-beaten, it may not be readable," Perry explained. The Legionnaires decorate the graves of all veterans of all wars -- from the Revolutionary to the present day Enduring Freedom War. "Some of the oldest graves are in the old Green Hill Cemetery off W. Elk Avenue where we have some Revolutionary War soldiers buried," Perry said.
   "Our biggest cemetery is at Happy Valley Memorial Park. Generally, the employees there pick the small flags up the day after Memorial Day to be re-used on Veteran's Day or the next Memorial Day. We probably have a thousand veterans buried there," Perry said.
   It is usually in the early afternoon when the last grave is decorated, and the old soldiers return home, sometimes with a tear in their eye, but always with memories. "It is a very touching time, at least it is for me," said Perry, noting that every headstone represents a story to be told and a past to be remembered. "Some of their stories will never be told publicly; they are all heroes," Perry said.
   Like most World War II veterans, Perry's memories of the war are vivid. He served in Italy and was part of three campaigns there. A year ago, Perry attended the D-Day Memorial ceremony in New Orleans, La. "Now, they are working on the Italian part of the Memorial, and I plan a return trip soon. I have a brick in that section," Perry noted with pride.
   During the Korean Conflict, Perry served stateside, training troops. "Over 100 soldiers from Elizabethton came through at Fort Jackson, S.C., where I was. Some were very young, and didn't even have a razor or toothbrush. I took many of them to the PX and bought them a razor and toothbrush," he said.
   It may sound like a simple gesture, but for Perry and the American Legion, the placing of an American flag on veterans' graves is simply their way of saying thanks for the time given to protect this country. "It's our way of saying 'we haven't forgotten you nor your sacrifice,'" said Perry.
   Perry requests all American Legion members who will participate in the Memorial Day project to meet Sunday morning at Hardee's at 6:30 a.m.