‘Labor of love’ keeps flags whole for fallen

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Holly -- When visitors arrive at Great Lakes National Veterans Cemetery, one of the first things they see is the Avenue of Flags — lined with 100 large star-spangled banners flapping in the wind.

The man in charge of maintaining all of those U.S. flags is Bill Wentz, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War who leads a crew of 15 volunteers that makes sure the banners are flown properly on 30-foot poles and are free of tears or other damage.

“I really enjoy this. I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t involved here,” said Wentz, 67, a retired GM autoworker from nearby Fenton. “It’s a gorgeous site and very peaceful. We try to do our part to keep it that way.”

Wentz and his crewmates were busy last week making sure everything was in order for the cemetery’s annual Memorial Day ceremony.

Sunday, thousands of visitors attended the cemetery’s 12th yearly commemoration of fallen service members at the burial ground in rural northwest Oakland County.

The Avenue of Flags is one of the most photographed parts of the cemetery and brings visitors to reflect on the thousands of men and women who have served, and also died, in the military.

The efforts of the volunteer flag men don’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. John McFarland, 86, of West Branch noted how the flags highlighted his recent drive into the cemetery.

“My wife has passed and I was inquiring what I have to do before I die to make this my final home,” said McFarland, who served in the Army 45th Infantry Division in Korea from 1952-54.

“(Great Lakes) is a wonderful place and people like (the volunteers) make me feel it will be something like that forever.”

The 544-acre cemetery, which opened in October 2005, has 33,600 people interred and is only one-third built out on 126 acres, Wentz said. When full, it will hold the remains of about 177,000 veterans and spouses.

Wentz, like other volunteers on the flag committee, is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, formed in 2005 when protests threatened to disrupt military burials at some cemeteries across the nation of servicemen killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Patriot Guard Riders group, originally organized by bikers — many military veterans themselves — provided an honor guard to physically shield mourners from protesters and maintain peace as family and friends said final goodbyes. Today, most sport patches on their biker jackets and vests that respectfully proclaim: “Standing for those who stood for us.”

Those at the Great Lakes cemetery say they consider their volunteer service not an obligation but a passion and an honor.

“It’s really a labor of love,” said Wentz, recalling how he became involved after attending cemetery advisory council meetings in 2007.

Every Monday since — rain, shine or snow — “except the occasional blizzard” — Wentz said he has shown up at the cemetery with other volunteers to walk the Avenue of Flags and inspect the banners.

Whenever a hearse or a funeral procession drives past the volunteers, they all stop to stand at attention, remove their caps and place hands over their hearts, until the last vehicle goes by.

Respect doesn’t end there.

“Every flag we take down has its own ceremony,” said David “Screws” Pegg of Livonia, who served in the Army and Coast Guard. “We try to maintain the dignity each flag deserves.”

Gail Ricketts of Flint sits next to the marker for her father, Korean War Army veteran John Westenbarger, before the Memorial Day ceremony at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly on Sunday. Ricketts says, “I always sat next to dad. It seems natural to sit here next to him and be in his world.”

On June 14, the group and other service organizations conduct a mass Flag Day Retirement Ceremony from noon to 2 p.m. at the cemetery, properly disposing of flags that are no longer in condition to be flown.

It’s a tradition they hope to pass on to other generations. Army veteran Eugene “T Bird” Raffin of Rochester Hills began bringing his grandchildren to the cemetery six years ago, when they were 5 and 6, “to make them a part of this.”

Flags have a lifespan of about two months, Wentz said, and are often pulled down at the first sign of wear in hopes of repairing and hoisting them back up. He buys groups of 200 flags to keep replacement costs low.

Many of the flags that have flown over the cemetery were presented to families during funerals and then donated back to Great Lakes by survivors, he said.

Leading up to special events, such as Memorial Day, service organizations and other volunteers decorate every tombstone with a small U.S. flag, with the banners removed the following week and stored until the next year.

Wentz stared at the row of tombstones lining several acres along the Avenue of the Flags, and said one day he will be among them.

“You don’t get to pick your spot, but I will be there somewhere too when my time comes,” he said.


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Families remember the fallen

Gail Ricketts of Flint sat next to her father’s marker at Great Lakes National Cemetery on Sunday, and soaked in the feeling of being in his presence.

“I always sat next to Dad,” Rickets said of Korean War Army veteran John Westenbarger. “It seems natural to sit here next to him and be in his world.”

Ricketts was among thousands who attended the Memorial Day ceremony at the national cemetery in Holly Township. Located on former farmland bordering Fagan Lake about 50 miles northwest of Detroit, it was a serene setting to remember their loved ones.

“It was beautiful, a little cloudy but the sun was peeking through,” said Maria Hiteshew of Mount Morris, who came to remember her husband, 20-year Navy veteran Barry Hiteshew, who died of cancer in 2014. He was 52.

“The cemetery is so beautiful, peaceful.”

Hiteshew, 56, brought her grandchildren, Jonathon Hiteshew, 10, and Trinity Wells, 6.

“I tell them he loved doing what he could do to help our country,” Hiteshaw said of the conversations she has with her grandchildren. “But I always talk to him.

“I let him know how our daughters are doing and what they’re doing. I let him know everything that’s going on. I definitely let him know how much I miss him and wish he was still here.”