Tomorrow,Veterans Day, volunteers will fan out on the slope of the Prospect HillCemetery facing George Street and add 97 flags to the thousands ofothers planted in the grass.
The total number of flags will top 5,000.
One each for every American soldier's life lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is the fourth year the flags have had to be updated.
Four years and thousands of flags.
It wasn't meant to be a permanent fixture. It still isn't.
Jack Sommer, general manager of the cemetery, launched it in August2005. That month, in two separate attacks, five Pennsylvania NationalGuardsmen were killed in Iraq. Sommer thought the cemetery should sosomething to honor them and their sacrifice.
The cemetery has been around since 1849 and is the final resting placeof veterans of every American war. Sommer said you can walk through thecemetery and see markers for veterans of the War of 1812, theSpanish-American War, the Civil War and every other conflict in thisnation's history.
It's inspiring, he said.
He hatched the idea of planting flags in the hillside facing NorthGeorge Street. The cemetery had the flags. On Memorial Day every year,it plants flags on all of the gravesites of veterans. Under state law-- it's a long, convoluted story -- the cemetery is required to takethe flags down on July 5. Sommer figured the cemetery could put thoseflags to good use.
"We had the flags," he said. "So we thought it'd be a good idea."
That first year, thecemetery staff planted 1,500 flags to honor the men and women killed inIraq. It seemed like a lot of flags then, a lot of lives sacrificed.
He figured the display would be temporary, something that would fade asthe war wound down. Sommer said he had an idea that the display wouldquickly become a part of local lore, a bittersweet tradition, honoringthe loss of life in the service of the nation.
The following year, the display grew. And the year after that, thecemetery added flags to honor those who gave their lives inAfghanistan. The first year, he reasoned, "a lot of us assumedAfghanistan was over."
Last year and this year, in fact, the cemetery has planted more flagshonoring those who lost their lives in Afghanistan than those whoperished in Iraq.
The display attracts a lot of attention. Sommer said truck driversgoing past will stop, parking their rigs at the Central FamilyRestaurant up the street, and take photos of the display. Familymembers of fallen soldiers will stop. Veterans of other wars tell himhow much the display means to them.
The display has grown to the point that it's getting difficult to findroom for all of the flags. "We've had to change (it) to get 5,000 flagsinto the area," Sommer said. "It takes a bit of engineering."
This year, as in the past couple of years, volunteers put up the flagsin the spring and will take them down for the winter. The Gold Starfamilies get involved, as do school groups and veterans.
The growth isn't something Sommer relishes.
Every flag represents a death. Every flag represents broken hearts.
The display isn't meant to be political. It's not meant to expresssupport of the war, or protest it. The meaning is simple - honoringthose who served.
"Whatever your view on the war, we do not want to make the mistake we made a generation ago," he said.
The men and women who serve, he said, are doing their jobs. If you'reagainst the war or think it was a horrible mistake, blame lieselsewhere, not on the shoulders of the men and women who volunteeredfor service.
Looking at the display, you cannot help but feel a sense of loss, asense of sadness for all of those lives sacrificed in what history willmost certainly record as perhaps the most misguided misadventure inthis nation's history.
So many lives.
Sommer said he longs for the day when the display will no longer benecessary, when the cemetery staff can pack it away and look for a wayto honor the fallen veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in an appropriatemanner, one that reflects the war as history, not current events.
"I think that's something we hoped for from the first day we put itup," Sommer said. "We hope that time comes. I think everybody hopesthat time comes."
Mike Argento's column appears Mondays and Fridays in Living and Sundays in Viewpoints. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 771-2046. Read more Argento columns at www.inyork.com/ydr -- click on the opinion section -- or visit his blog at www.mikeargento.com.