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 Saturday morning, 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 Monday’s holiday was never far from the minds of those who were there. “It’s important,” said Thomas Struck, “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.
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 local landmarks: Pendleton (the Oceanside 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 Saturday. The walls of the columbarium niches were adorned, too, one flag for each row of stacked cremated remains.
Sounds like a time-consuming job, putting in place 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 active duty, also in the Navy.
“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,” he said, “that these were real people. They’re not just stones out here.”
Monday’s annual Memorial Day service at the cemetery is virtual again because of the pandemic. Officials hope to return to a live event next year.