Cleburne man seeks help for National Cemetery flag effort

Posted Sunday, Feb. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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For years, Bob Fussner and his wife, Diane, have arrived with an armload of American flags at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery on Memorial Day.

Unlike Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the headstones at the cemetery were not decorated with small flags for the holiday. So Fussner, a Marine veteran from Cleburne, and his wife would select the graves of veterans from each war and plant a flag.

But it always bothered Fussner that he couldn't put a flag at every gravesite.

"Every single one of them deserves it," Fussner said. "So last year we said, 'You know, we should do something about this.'"

What followed was a hasty but successful effort by Fussner and a horde of volunteers to plant 26,000 flags at the gravestone of every veteran buried in the cemetery, which is at 2000 Mountain Creek Parkway in Dallas.

This year, with an estimated 35,000 graves needing flags, Fussner is organizing early, seeking volunteers and support for the project.

Fussner founded Flags for Fallen Vets, a nonprofit organization, and expanded the effort to the national cemetery in Houston.

"We'd like to get some more young people involved, people who maybe haven't been to a national cemetery before," he said.

Fussner said he discovered during last year's project that many people were unaware that a national cemetery opened in Dallas-Fort Worth in 2000. It also seemed that those who did know often assumed that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs already placed flags at the gravesites for the holiday each year.

Actually, the veterans department doesn't perform the service at any national cemetery, including the one in the Arlington, Va. Volunteers raise donations for the flags and put them up themselves, he said.

Of the 136 national cemeteries, only 14 were not decorated with flags on Memorial Day, including those in Dallas and Houston, he said.

Welcomed effort

Officials at the Dallas-Fort Worth cemetery reacted enthusiastically to the idea. In the past, one female visitor to the cemetery would often select a section of the cemetery to put up flags for Memorial Day, but she couldn't put them up throughout the entire cemetery, said Larry Williams, assistant director at the cemetery.

"We love it," Williams said. "They did a fantastic job, and we certainly welcome them."

Almost as impressive as the work the volunteers did setting up the flags was their job taking them down a few days later, he said.

"A lot of people love to come decorate but they don't always think about cleaning up," he said.

Families of veterans resting in the cemetery are grateful. Charley Lee's father, Charles Lee, who died in 2011, served in the Army Air Force in World War II and the Korean War. Charley Lee said he learned about Fussner's effort last year shortly before Memorial Day.

"As soon as I saw his request for help I told my mom, and I got involved," Charley Lee said. "I asked to help do the flags in the section where my father was buried."

On the morning before Memorial Day, when volunteers gathered to arrange the flags, he went to the cemetery and was shocked by the sight. Word of Fussner's project had spread through radio interviews and stories in the media.

Fussner estimated that about 1,000 volunteers showed up to help.

"There were more people than I ever imagined," Lee said. "It was really incredible to see that."

Seeking Tarrant help

The 8-by-12-inch flags are mounted on 24-inch wooden posts with gold spears. Those left over from last year's effort are stored in a donated warehouse in Cleburne.

But rain damaged some of the posts, and about 8,000 must be replaced, Fussner said. The flags will be placed this year on May 26.

Fussner said he was specifically contacting Tarrant County media about the story in the hope that more residents on the western half of the Metroplex will get involved. Last year, the majority of the volunteers were from the Dallas area.

"We would love to get more people involved," he said. "It's a way the community can get together and give our veterans something they really deserve."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

Twitter: @albranch1

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