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Volunteers at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery remember military sacrifices, one flag at a time

Thomas Struck and his son, G.T. Struck from Cub Scout Pack 395, place a U.S. flag in front of a headstone
Thomas Struck and his son, G.T. Struck from Cub Scout Pack 395, say the names of each veteran out loud as they place a U.S. flag in front of headstones at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on May 28. The Strucks were among hundreds of volunteers preparing the cemetery for Memorial Day, Monday, May 30.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

American flags are placed on some 70,000 graves at the Point Loma cemetery for Memorial Day.

Nine-year-old G.T. Struck stepped in front of the upright headstone at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and waited.

His father, Thomas Struck, read out loud the name on the marker and handed the boy a small American flag attached to a pointed wooden stick.

G.T. put the toe of his right shoe at the base of the marker, measuring where the flag should go. He bent over and stuck it in the ground behind his right heel. Then he straightened up, bowed his head for a moment and saluted.

One down, 70,000 more to go.

Fortunately for G.T., he wasn’t the only one at Fort Rosecrans on May 28, the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. Hundreds of volunteers spread out across the Point Loma grounds, adorning what is usually an undulating sea of green grass and white marble with patriotic splashes of red, white and blue.

The meaning of the Memorial Day holiday, which is Monday, May 30, was never far from the minds of those who were there. “It’s important,” Thomas Struck said, “that we remember those who fought and died so we can live in this country freely.”

Many of the graves at Fort Rosecrans hold the remains of someone killed in combat. It’s the final resting place for service members slain in almost every military conflict since the Battle of San Pasqual during the Mexican-American War in 1846.

A small Scout group walks with flags among the headstones.
Andrew May, den leader for Pack 299 from Clairemont, leads a small group of his Scouts as they place U.S. flags at headstones.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

There are graves for 35 Navy sailors killed in the boiler explosion aboard the gunboat Bennington in 1905. Markers for almost two-dozen recipients of the nation’s highest award for battlefield bravery, the Medal of Honor. Markers for veterans whose last names are attached to area landmarks: Pendleton (the Marine base) and Fleet (the science center in Balboa Park).

All the graves in the ground at the 82-acre cemetery got decorated with flags. The walls of the columbarium niches were adorned, too, one flag for each row of stacked cremated remains.

It sounds like a time-consuming job, placing some 70,000 flags, but it didn’t take long. The volunteers were done in 90 minutes.

Many, like G.T., belong to local Scout troops. His is based in El Cajon. Others came from service clubs, churches and local businesses.

Jennifer Zgoda of Spring Valley was there because she tries to do something to honor Memorial Day every year. The military runs deep in her family: a grandfather who fought in World War II, a father who fought in Vietnam, a brother who was in Desert Storm. All survived their combat tours.

She’s a veteran, too, recently retired after 21 years in the Navy. Her husband is still on active duty, also in the Navy.

Jennifer Zgoda of Spring Valley examines one of the headstones at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery with her son, Maximus, 3.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It’s important to remember the sacrifice of those who came before us,” she said as she planted flags in front of headstones. “Now I’m trying to pass it along to him” (her 3-year-old son, Maximus, who wandered among the markers).

Evan Martin of Lakeside used the morning as an opportunity to teach his son, Duncan, 7, about history. He pointed out a grave marker from the Spanish-American War. He noted, based on the dates of death, the differences in World War II markers between those who were killed in combat and those who came home and lived out their lives.

“Sometimes we forget that these were real people,” he said. “They’re not just stones out here.”

The cemetery’s annual Memorial Day service May 30 will be virtual again because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials hope to return to a live event next year.


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