RIMERSBURG — In a typical year, local sixth grade students make quick work of placing nearly 900 flags on the graves of veterans’ in the massive Rimersburg Cemetery in southern Clarion County.
The effort to assist the American Legion and VFW groups in Rimersburg is turned into a lesson for the students as they learn about their community’s heroes and the various eras of military service.
This year, however, amid the battle against coronavirus, veterans in the Rimersburg area were not only unsure who would help with placing the flags, but where the flags themselves would come from.
The flags for all Clarion County cemeteries usually come from the only Pennsylvania-based manufacturer, FlagZone of Montgomery County. Because it was deemed a non-essential business, FlagZone was shut down with Clarion County’s order of flags sitting in the warehouse ready to ship.
“They had shipments ready, and mine was one of them,” Clarion County Veterans Affairs Director Judy Zerbe said. While many counties are able to take their flag orders earlier, Zerbe said Clarion County waits because it has no place to store the thousands of flags before they are distributed to the veterans groups and individual volunteers who place them at cemeteries across the county prior to Memorial Day.
With the flags unable to be shipped, both Clarion County and Rimersburg veterans opted to find another vendor. Zerbe said the county was able to order flags from an Illinois manufacturer, but had told the veterans they could not guarantee they would arrive in time for the holiday. Rimersburg veterans moved ahead on their own, finding a vendor to purchase flags for the large Rimersburg Cemetery, as well as six smaller cemeteries in the area.
Union Elementary teacher Rachel Kindel, who typically arranged for the sixth-graders to help place the flags, assembled a team of about a dozen teachers to help this year. But when they showed up at the cemetery Thursday morning to help the veterans, they also found a number of other community members there eager to help out.
The cemetery is also where the Rimersburg community’s annual Memorial Day service is held each May, attracting crowds upwards of 500 people or more each year. This year, though, Kindel said it would be very strange for there not to be a program held at the site.
But despite the restrictions, Kindel said the virus could not take away the community’s spirit and ideals.
“It can’t quiet our patriotism,” she said. “We are not going to forget the sacrifices they made.”
Kindel asked those gathered Thursday to place the flags in the manner in which are done at Arlington National Cemetery, by approaching the grave, saying the veteran’s name aloud, and then placing the flag in the holder. She also pointed out the grave of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Donald R. Lobaugh.
As the teachers and community members prepared to place the flags, the local veterans were busy unpacking each flag, which were individually wrapped, unlike in most years.
For the rest of the cemeteries in the county, Zerbe said the county’s order from Illinois arrived Thursday afternoon. She said she would sort them out on Friday, and notify the volunteers over the weekend that they could come pick up their flags.
She noted that because they came from a different manufacturer, this year’s flags are not 12 inches by 18 inches as usual, but 8 inches by 12 inches, and the flag staffs are also a different size, which may necessitate placing them into the ground by the graves, rather than in the holders.
“It’s better to have something than to have nothing,” Zerbe said, noting that she received permission from the county commissioners to accept the order of flags from FlagZone when they are ready to ship, so that the county will have flags on hand for next year in case there are distribution problems then as well.
Back in Rimersburg, the veterans there said that while their annual parade and services for Memorial Day would be called off, they still planned to salute the veterans who have been laid to rest by holding their annual fire watch from Saturday evening to Monday morning, followed by a raising of the flag and rifle salute in Rimersburg’s Veterans Memorial Park.