Navy veteran Tom Taylor of Farmingdale places flags at the graves of...

Navy veteran Tom Taylor of Farmingdale places flags at the graves of veterans at Long Island National Cemetery in Pinelawn last year. Credit: Steve Pfost

For thousands on Long Island, Memorial Day presents the opportunity to show devotion by way of decoration.

On Saturday, May 26, a few thousand people will rise before the sun itself to stake small American flags into the ground at the nearly 300,000 headstones at Long Island National Cemetery in Pinelawn.

This “Flags In” ceremony is a time-honored tradition rooted in respect. It is conducted annually across the country, including at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where it began in 1948. The service project involves the placement of flags one foot and center in an upright style. It traditionally begins at 6 a.m. the Saturday before Memorial Day at the Long Island National Cemetery and continues until completion. Flags also are placed at Calverton National Cemetery's approximately 220,000 gravesites from 9:30 to 11 a.m.

And while thousands turn out to stake flags, organizers of these events say they see a stark decline in the number of volunteers who return the following Saturday to remove the patriotic pennants.

“The biggest thing is also to have volunteers remember it is just as important to pick up the flags as it is to place them,” says Pamela Mercouris, 54, of Bayport, a volunteer with the Girl Scouts of Suffolk County, which for the past 24 years has sent Scouts to the Calverton cemetery for placement and pickup.

Srey Austin, the director of Long Island National Cemetery and complex, says 3,000 to 5,000 volunteers turn out to place flags there annually, but only 80 to 100 typically return for removal. Austin attributes the disparity to a lack of awareness.

“I think people think the flag placement is more meaningful and don’t know that they have to remove them,” says Austin, 48, of Farmingdale. “I would love to have the same number removing them as placing them.”

A SHOW OF RESPECT

Each gravestone has a story, Austin says.

“Every single headstone we have here is a person, is a veteran or a spouse or their dependent children,” says Austin, an Army veteran. “By placing the flag, they show, I know you’re just not a headstone — it belongs to a person.”

Mercouris has made it part of her mission to impart this message on Girl Scouts.

“When I first started doing this with my own troop 21 years ago, we taught the girls [ages 5 and 6] how to handle the flags, to watch where they walked, to clean off the headstones," Mercouris says. "And to respect the place they are in and the men and women who are buried there."

Last year, the Suffolk County Girl Scouts Council had almost 2,000 participants.

Frank Bailey, chairman of the Calverton gravesite flag placement committee, has been involved in these Long Island service projects since their inception in 1995, when he was a Cub Scout leader. Bailey coordinates with more than 90 groups to ensure there are volunteers assigned to each section of the cemetery on placement and pickup days.

This year, Bailey says, he will have 6,000 volunteers made up of current and past Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, American Legion groups, students and professionals. 

“Even if 60 percent of those volunteers return the following Saturday, that is more than enough to pick up and roll all those flags in about 90 minutes,” says Bailey, 60, a Middle Island resident.

It's a small sacrifice when putting things into perspective, organizers say. 

“It serves as a teachable moment for our youth,” Bailey says. “They may not know the person whose gravesite they are decorating, but they’ll know it was someone very special, who served our country honorably, and, possibly died protecting our country’s freedoms and liberties.”

HOW TO VOLUNTEER

Long Island National Cemetery, 2040 Wellwood Ave., Pinelawn

INFO 631-454-4949

PLACING 6 a.m. Saturday, May 26

PICKUP 8 a.m. Saturday, June 2

Calverton National Cemetery, 210 Princeton Blvd., Calverton

Flag pickup and placement limited to registered groups and families of those buried there.

INFO 631-732-4529