We sent emails, posted on social media, disseminated a news release, and prayed. We had a tough assignment facing us. It was the first year our nonprofit Honoring America’s Veterans had taken over the responsibility of gathering enough volunteers to place small American Flags at nearly 60,000 internment sites at the VA National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona. The event was set to start at 7:30 a.m. on Sat. May 27, and as my husband and I pulled up to the area around 7:15 a.m. I had tears of joy as I saw people walking from their parked cars on the street outside the Cemetery and walking over to the event. When we got up to the stage, the crowd was huge. Several Boy Scouts from Troop 531 had assembled, and hundreds of volunteers from the community and organizations like Bank of America, USAA, Cigna, Wells Fargo, Honor Health, and more supported the effort. The group from the Hyatt Hotels had contacted Liberty Wildlife, who brought out one of their bald eagles, Aurora, for the event.
The Cemetery Director, Randy Heard, a top-notch former U.S. Navy Sailor who earned Sailor of the Year honors while on active duty, welcomed everyone to his place. He briefly overviewed their mission and how they provide a final resting place for our fallen military and veterans. Troop 531 then presented the colors, and we said the Pledge of Allegiance. HAV President Brian Ishmael and Cemetery Supervisor Marco Cortez provided instructions to the crowd. The Cemetery is on acres of dirt, and the soil gets hard, so the volunteers need to poke holes in the ground with a manufactured prod and then place the flags in the holes. The volunteers were provided water thanks to a donation from Costco and dispersed in every direction, and completed their mission within an hour and a half. We were told it was “a new record.” Ultimately, the Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary Unit 20 out of Glendale provided donuts and punch, a tradition they’ve hosted for nearly two decades.
The decorating paved the way for a beautiful ceremony on Monday at 8 a.m. attended by Governor Katie Hobbs, Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, Attorney General Kris Mayes, County Attorney Rachel Mitchell, and other dignitaries. The keynote speaker was Navy Cross recipient RJ Mitchell from APS, and the event emcee was Veterans Court Judge and Vietnam War Veteran Rick Romley. Thousands attended to pay their respects while the Army National Guard Band played songs, and various groups presented our colors and wreaths to remember our fallen.
But our work isn’t done yet. At 7 a.m., Sat., June 3, we will head back out to the Cemetery to retrieve the flags, bundle them up, and keep the good ones ready to do it all over again next year. For photos, a recap, and how to volunteer again, go to https://paulapedene.com/blog.