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Flags for Fallen Vets to decorate headstones at Sarasota National Cemetery for Memorial Day

PARRISH

A feeling of pride and emotion washes over Meshia Richardson, when she walks into her Parrish garage and sees the bins containing 11,000 American flags that will decorate headstones at Sarasota National Cemetery during Memorial Day.

"It feels good to see the flags and know they are going some place special," said Richardson, event coordinator for Flags for Fallen Vets.

"Flags are permitted at each grave only one time a year, and that's during Memorial Day," she said. Memorial Day is May 30.

Richardson began volunteering at Sarasota National Cemetery, the final resting place for her Navy veteran husband, Ronald Richardson, who died at 73 in 2015.

After she discovered there was no program to decorate headstones there with flags, she donated $100 to Flags for Fallen Vets. Late one night, she mulled the fact that Sarasota National Cemetery lacked a flag program and decided to email Bob Fussner, a retired Marine sergeant who serves as president of Flags for Fallen Vets.

Surprisingly, she received an email reply at 2 a.m., got to know Fussner, and became local event coordinator for Sarasota National Cemetery.

In its first year, 2015, Richardson led a fundraising effort that netted $18,000 from individuals, veterans organizations and nonprofits, and she organized a volunteer corps that was able to place a flag at every headstone at Sarasota National Cemetery, 9810 State Road 72.

"It touches my heart," Richardson said. "I couldn't be more thrilled."

Although the number of veterans at rest at the 295-acre Sarasota National Cemetery grows every year, the fundraising effort needed this year was not as large as in the start-up year.

An estimated $4,500 is needed

this year, and all but $500 of that has been raised so far.

Richardson also is recruiting volunteers. About 50 showed up last Saturday to help prepare all those flags for Memorial Day.

"We had to set up tables in the parking lot. It was wonderful to see the community pull together for this," she said.

The process to set out flags for Memorial Day has an element of military precision.

"We have to be at the cemetery at 6:30 a.m. May 28, our section leaders report at 7 a.m., and all the volunteers need to be there at 7:30 a.m., with placement starting at 8 a.m. Last year we finished up before 10 a.m.," Richardson said.

The Memorial Day program at Sarasota National Cemetery begins at 11 a.m.

Each of the bins packed with American flags is marked with the section of the cemetery where they will be placed.

Volunteers return to the cemetery at 10 a.m. June 2 to remove flags.

"I have my heart and soul in this. As long as I am alive, I will be involved," she said.

The nonprofit Flags for Fallen Vets was established May 14, 2012, for the purpose of ensuring an American flag is placed on every veteran grave site at national cemeteries for Memorial Day.

"It's impressive," retired Lt. Col. Lee Kichen, chairman emeritus for the Sarasota National Cemetery Advisory Board, said of the flags placed at every headstone.

"It's good to see people have their hearts in it," Kichen said of Richardson and the other volunteers.

Volunteers must be registered and have a ticket to volunteer.

To make a donation for this program, visit flagsforfallenvets.com. For volunteer opportunities, call 941-448-6299.

James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.

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