Georgia cemeteries fill with flags, tributes on Memorial Day weekend

Karson Troville, with Troop 1755, places flags in front of tombstones at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton Saturday, May 27, 2023. Volunteers will place an estimated 21,000 flags on tombstones during the ceremony (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Karson Troville, with Troop 1755, places flags in front of tombstones at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton Saturday, May 27, 2023. Volunteers will place an estimated 21,000 flags on tombstones during the ceremony (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Whenever Charlotte Christian sees the sea of American flags atop the graves of United States military veterans buried at Marietta National Cemetery, it hits her.

This year’s Memorial Day will be especially challenging.

Christian, the president of the National Memorial Association of Georgia, which coordinates Memorial Day events at the Marietta National Cemetery, recently lost her mother, Josephine Wilson Christian.

On Feb. 10, 1944, her mother’s brother, Henry Herbert Wilson, an Atlanta native and graduate of Georgia Tech, was shot down and killed over Germany while on a bombing mission.

“So for me, this year is going to have a lot of significance,” Christian said. “He was our only family member lost in military action. As president of the association, it has come home to me thinking about him a lot lately.”

At a noon ceremony on Monday, the Marietta National Cemetery, as part of their annual tradition, will honor heroes like Wilson and the thousands of others who lost their lives defending this country.

On Saturday at the same cemetery, hundreds of volunteers and Boy Scouts planted more than 17,000 flags on the graves of former soldiers to honor their commitments and sacrifices.

In Canton, at the Georgia National Cemetery, volunteers planted more than 21,000 flags on Saturday. Surviving family members of some of the fallen heroes were there to observe and to cherish the memories of their loved ones.

“It’s been almost 15 years,” said Michael Phillips, father of United States Army Corporal Matthew Britten Phillips, who was killed in Afghanistan. “It really still hurts moving on but he’s our hero.”

Phillips had two weeks to go in Afghanistan before he could return home to Georgia. But on July 13, 2008, the Taliban ambushed and killed the 27-year-old and his eight brothers-in-arms in Wanat.

Deborah Kendrick, who directs both the Georgia and Marietta national cemeteries, is always touched by the volunteer efforts that people make to honor military veterans. Kendrick has been with the Veterans Administration for more than 20 years and arrived at her Georgia posts last year.

“It is important that have a special day to recognize and honor their service,” Kendrick said. “When I look at the dedication and commitment from the community and even the staff, where we all come together to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives is amazing. That is an honor that we should not take lightly.”

It is something that Bryon Hall has never taken lightly.

A retired U.S. Navy chief, Hall has now devoted his life to helping veterans and their families as the chairman of the Georgia National Cemetery Advisory Council. He and his wife plan to be buried at the sprawling cemetery.

In his 30 years of active and reserve service, he never lost a man in action, but he still understands the pain. Among the 21,000 people buried at Georgia National, 22 were service members killed in the line of duty, according to the Georgia National Cemetery Advisory Council.

“The men and women who gave their lives deserve all of the honor and respect that this nation and anyone can provide,” Hall said. “Coming out to the cemetery on this day of service and teaching their children about what they sacrificed is important. They were doing their duty in the defense of our country. They were actively serving our country and to me, that is absolutely astounding.”

When Christian walks into the Marietta cemetery on Monday and gazes upon the thousands of American flags fluttering in the wind, she will be carrying a bit of her uncle’s legacy.

“It makes your heart soar, but it is heart-wrenching because of the symbolism of the tombstones and flags,” Christian said. “And knowing that all of them are here because of their service to this country.”

Staff writer Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this article.

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