Flags were planted on the graves of veterans Saturday at Calverton National Cemetery by about 6,500 Scouts and their families, including George Fehlker, who still walks around with shrapnel from the Vietnam War.
"We wouldn't be here without them," said the 69-year-old former Army sergeant from Melville, gesturing at the graves. "The country wouldn't exist without the military."
Forty-seven years ago in the A Shau Valley in Vietnam, a land mine exploded, shredding his intestines and severely damaging his knee. Just six months ago, another piece of shrapnel worked its way out of his body.
"Because I served, I guess I feel very connected to it all," he said as he kept watch over his grandchildren, Cub Scout Aidan Missing, 6, and Girl Scout Amanda Missing, 11, of Medford. Amanda said she wanted to tell veterans "thank you for saving our world and making us free."
Scout troops and other volunteers fanned out to place flags at each of the cemetery's 225,000 graves -- a task completed in about 45 minutes.
Boy Scout Billy VanThomme's grandfathers served in World War II and the Korean War, and one is buried at Calverton. The 11-year-old from Yaphank said he was "helping to remember all the fallen soldiers who have helped us defend and serve our country."
A similar Memorial Day weekend event was held at Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn.
"I'm here to . . . teach our children the importance of honoring those who have served our country," said Chris Okon of Yaphank, an assistant scoutmaster who has been bringing his son, Kyle, 13, a Boy Scout, and daughter, Gracie, 11, a Girl Scout, to the Calverton ceremony for about seven years.
When Gracie was asked what freedoms she enjoys as an American, she said she was grateful that she was allowed to get an education, and that her family has talked about how in some countries, girls are not allowed to go to school.
"I know how strong I am and how I really love to learn new things every day in school," she said. "My school is diverse and we have so many kids from different cultures and different countries with us and we can learn from their life about their country, and we learn how unique we are [in our freedom] because of our veterans."
After shrapnel hit him in 18 places, Fehlker said he spent two weeks on a hospital ship, often talking to an unconscious soldier named Casper. He was the one who stepped on the mine that wounded Fehlker and seven others in a light weaponry unit of the 1st Cavalry Division.
"Even though I was hooked up to all kinds of hoses and things, they let me go talk to him," Fehlker said. "They said, 'talk to him, even though he's unconscious.' "
Soon after, the Army transferred Fehlker to a hospital in Japan and then to the United States for months of recovery. He went on to work as a supervisor at a credit union. He never learned what happened to Casper.