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Across the nation there are 131 national cemeteries dedicated to veterans; the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno is one of these. You might have seen it if you have driven down Interstate 280 towards San Francisco. In total the cemetery spans 161 acres; in it are about 140,000 graves in immaculate rows of white tombstones.

Hundreds of volunteers gather for the flag ceremony before the flag planting starts. Credit: Emma Shelton.

Every year for Memorial Day an American flag is planted on each grave in the cemetery, and in others nationwide, to honor the veterans who sacrifice so much for our country. These flags are planted by hand by volunteers who want to honor these men and women.

Hundreds of volunteers arrived at Golden Gate National Cemetery early Saturday morning to plant flags. The event draws many people, including veterans and many local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. Each flag is planted uniformly in the center of the grave and a foot away from the tombstone, and yet by working together, the entire cemetery is done in about two hours.

John Muhlner, a Menlo-Atherton alumnus and Eagle Scout from Troop 206, with his son Dakin Muhlner, a current troop member. Credit: Emma Shelton.

The Boy Scouts have been planting flags to honor veterans in national cemeteries for over 65 years, and local Troop 206 has participated for decades.

Assistant Scout Master Emma Shelton has participated in the Memorial Day flag planting with Troop 206 since 1994 and commented, “I think it is so amazing that everyone can work together to get a flag properly installed on so many graves within a couple of hours.”

Shelton added, “It’s always interesting and sobering for even the Scouts to see the information on all the graves.”

Golden Gate National Cemetery contains the graves of many veterans from a century of military engagements, including veterans from Vietnam, both World Wars, and even the Spanish-American War. Buried there are 15 Medal of Honor recipients and several notable figures in United States military history, including Fleet Admiral Chester William Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor in World War II.

Graves with planted flags. Credit: Emma Shelton.

But the cemetery is also the final resting place of many people’s family members and friends. Shelton has multiple family members there, but she and another Scout have also “unexpectedly found a family member there. In our case, it was my dad’s favorite cousin, shot down over France in WWII.”

The flag planting is a simple way to honor the multitudes of veterans buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery, but it is impressive and sobering to see the vastness of the cemetery and to appreciate the work of the volunteers to honor each and every one of them.

The following Saturday, volunteers will gather again to remove the flags from the graves but will return next year to honor the veterans for Memorial Day.

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