A few days before Memorial Day, in cemeteries across the United States, a tradition takes place ? one small American flag at a time. The final resting place of the men and women who served this great nation, a number of them who died in their service, all have a small American flag placed at their headstone. The flag is placed as a tribute to their service on the day all Americans set aside to remember their sacrifice.
In my hometown of Van Meter, approximately 1,300 flags will be placed the Friday before Memorial Day on the graves of those who are buried at the Iowa Veterans Cemetery. And, just over 200 miles away another 4,500 flags will be placed on veteran’s graves at the Keokuk National Cemetery.
In the nation’s capital, every available member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, commonly referred to as The Old Guard, will place almost 250,000 of the flags on the graves of service members buried at both Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery ? one of the country’s oldest national cemeteries. The tradition is known as “Flags in” and the members of The Old Guard complete their work within just four hours.
This year, sometime within that four hour period, one of the members of The Old Guard will place the flag tribute at the hero who rests at grave number 11,283 located in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. It will be the first year Army Sgt. Donald Dean Noehren is paid this honor which is a long time coming.
Sgt. Noehren, who was from Harlan, Iowa, served in the United States Navy in World War II and then served his nation again in the Army as a combat engineer during the Korean War. According to news accounts, Sgt. Noehren had only been in Korea for four short months in 1950 when his unit was overrun by the Chinese Army’s forces. American prisoners who were later repatriated reported to American authorities that Sgt. Noehren died in a prison camp. And, although his family was notified by the U.S. military in 1953 that Donald was declared dead, his remains remained unfound ? until 2005.
It was in 2005 when a Department of Defense team tasked with solving Prisoner of War/Missing In Action (POW/MIA) cases recovered what were finally identified early this year as Sgt. Noehren’s remains using an advanced DNA analysis.
At 3:00 pm on April 3rd of this year, relatives of Sgt. Noehren gathered on an overcast day in Arlington National Cemetery to participate in the funeral rites for someone that had been gone so long that no living family member had ever met him. But they came and honored an American who served his country in two different branches of service and in two different wars. And, they honored an American who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his nation and the cause of freedom 66 years ago.
This Memorial Day we will have the opportunity to pause and remember the day’s true meaning. To mark at least one day in our year to remember Sgt. Donald Dean Noehren, the many men and women who served their country, our POW/MIA servicemembers and those who gave their lives in service. To take at least one day to reflect on the freedoms we often take for granted because they took the oath and put on the uniform.
May their service and sacrifices never go unnoticed or ever be forgotten.