Local volunteers place flags on veterans’ graves for Memorial Day

While serving in the U.S. Air Force, Victor Bryant was on escort duty one day aboard an aircraft with 14 American flag-draped coffins.

Those people had died in service to their country. Three of them were Bryant’s best friends.

The Seymour man wound up serving for 22 years, and he also has had several family members in the military over the years, including a couple serving now.

That’s why since 2018, he has shown up the Thursday morning before Memorial Day to help place flags on veterans’ graves at Riverview Cemetery in Seymour.

“If you’ve ever ridden in the back of a C-141 with 14 flag-draped coffins, three of whom are your best friends, then you can understand why you come out every year,” he said. “Rain, sleet, snow or shine, I’ll be out here every year.”

He was among more than 20 people who volunteered their time Thursday morning to place flags on the graves of 1,800-plus veterans buried at the cemetery on the north side of the city.

Bryant said he typically starts on the far west side of the cemetery because that’s where some of his family is buried.

He said there has been at least one Bryant in every generation who has served in the military.

“I knew at 8 years old that I was going to serve,” he said. “The other kids at my time, they had little funny car models. I was putting together tanks and airplanes and ships. It was just something that I knew.”

When he became of age to join the Air Force, Bryant volunteered.

“Yeah, you had drafts, but there were a lot of volunteers, and I volunteered,” he said. “I knew that I may not make it back, but it was just something in that, I can’t really explain it.”

He made it back home but realizes many others didn’t. That’s why he feels called to help place flags every year for Memorial Day.

“People will come up to you and they’ll say, ‘Happy Memorial Day’ or stuff like that, ‘Thank you for your service,’ but Memorial Day isn’t for me or any of us that are walking around putting these flags up. That’s Veterans Day,” Bryant said.

“Memorial Day is for the people who put it all on the line, who gave it all so that we could be here today,” he said. “To me, Memorial Day is about the people who gave it all, those 14 flag-draped coffins. You give it all. You put it out there. You know when you go that you may not make it back. … Any that gave their life for this country, for this flag to fly over this country, that’s the thing.”

Another veteran helping Thursday morning was Margaret Wilson of Seymour.

Between active and reserve duty, she served in the U.S. Army for 27 years. She said six uncles fought in World War II, so she thinks about them and others who served as she places flags.

“I do it every year I’ve been in town, so off and on for 30 years,” she said. “It’s a matter of respect. When I was a little bitty kid growing up here in Seymour, one of my uncles was a bigwig out at the VFW, so he would make me come out as a tiny tot and help out.”

Wilson said families help her place flags on veterans’ graves at other cemeteries around Jackson County for Memorial Day.

“All week long, people have been coming into the (American) Legion getting flags to go do the cemeteries throughout the county,” she said.

She appreciates the help because one person can’t do it all.

“I think it’s great because we need to have that sense of community, and let’s be honest, our country wouldn’t be what it is without these gentlemen and these ladies (who served in the military),” she said.

Marcus Sewell of Seymour was in an area near Wilson helping place flags Thursday morning.

He said this is his sixth year helping, and he always makes sure to place a flag next to the grave of his grandfather, Donald “Tince” Black.

“He helped raise me. When I was a teenager, I was with him a lot,” Sewell said. “His brothers were all in the military, too. They are buried over in Soldiers’ Row.”

He said at least five family members who were veterans, including some great-uncles, are buried at Riverview. That’s what brings him out every year to place flags.

“For me, Memorial Day starts on that Thursday when we go around and do this,” Sewell said. “Yeah, it’s fun to go to the barbecues and have the day off work and all that stuff, but this means a lot to us.”

Sewell said hearing his grandpa tell stories about his military service made him want to join, but he wasn’t able to.

“As a kid growing up, we’re going to Kings Island, we’re going camping, we’d spend one day going to the different graveyards and my grandparents would climb in the car with us and they would tell stories of family that was gone,” he said. “That was really my favorite part of it growing up. I was the youngest out of 13 grandkids, so I spent a lot of time with my grandpa.”

As he walks row by row at the cemetery each year, he thinks about his grandpa’s stories.

“When he was a kid, people on Memorial Day would actually bring the picnic to the graveyard, sit at the graves and have a picnic,” Sewell said. “To me, I’m sorry that America has gotten away from such things. A lot of people don’t even know where their relatives are buried, let alone which graveyard.”

Like Wilson, Sewell is glad to see others volunteer their time to help place flags.

“That makes you feel really good,” he said. “It’s good to see the community come together and help each other like this because this is a lot of walking and it’s not an easy task. The more people we have, the better it is. Me and Margaret and Mom (Linda Black), throughout the weekend, as we get calls if somebody got missed, we’ll go find it because by Monday, we want everybody covered.”

Vicky Stainbrook of Columbus, unit president for American Legion Post 89 Auxiliary in Seymour, had help placing flags from two of the youngest volunteers, her granddaughters, Elizabeth Jones, 4, and Hazel Jones, 3. All three wore red, white and blue.

She said it was good to show the girls, who are auxiliary members, that it’s important to pay respects to veterans who sacrificed their lives.

“We always do Columbus (cemetery), so this is the first time we’ve done here,” Stainbrook said. “We go to the cemetery and place flowers already, so this is just an extension of that. We’re putting flags in honor and paying our respects. That’s what we do.”

In her role with the Legion, Stainbrook is in charge of the auxiliary and helps with the Legionnaires.

“We’re just here to serve the veterans, whatever it takes,” she said. “We have veterans that we sponsor up at the Indiana Veterans’ Home in West Lafayette. Then we also do Madison State Hospital. We have veterans there, so we go play bingo with them and send them Christmas gifts.”

Stainbrook said she’s part of the Legion through her grandfather, who was a U.S. Navy veteran. Now, her son is in his sixth year of active duty with the U.S. Army.

She’s proud of her family’s military service, and she places flags to remember her grandfather and others who have lost their lives.

“We’re good friends also with Jonathon Hunter’s family. He is from Columbus, he passed away, so we do it in honor of him, as well,” she said of an Army sergeant who was killed in action Aug. 2, 2017, in Afghanistan. “We send out care packages and we always put ‘In memory of Jonathon Hunter.’ It’s just the service and the fighting for our country, just honoring the veterans that helped serve for our country.”

If you go 

Two Memorial Day services are planned in Jackson County.

The first one is at 1 p.m. Sunday at Fairview Cemetery, 610 N. High St., Brownstown.

The second one is at 11 a.m. Monday at Riverview Cemetery, 1603 Shields Ave., Seymour.

Both are open to the public.