ELGIN — Erin Griffin held back tears Wednesday afternoon as she watched her students move slowly between graves, gently planting a flag in the ground at each headstone.
Dozens of fourth- and fifth-grade students from Flower Mound Public Schools visited Fort Sill National Cemetery to place flags on the graves of nearly 1,000 U.S. military veterans. For nearly 15 years, the school has helped the cemetery prepare for Veterans Day, celebrated each Nov. 11.
Eighteen months ago, Griffin was in a cemetery just like this one, burying her father, who retired as a sergeant major in the U.S. Army.
“It’s still really hard,” she said, gazing across the rows of white marble headstones. “That’s why I wasn’t out here last year; it was just too much.”
After emptying their hands of flags, several students silently hugged Griffin as tears flowed down her cheeks.
“My students were all really supportive when it happened,” said Griffin, who was away from school for two weeks when her father died. “The respect and love they had was amazing.”
Griffin wasn’t the only one feeling the weight of the holiday’s significance.
Marty Talley retired as a command sergeant major after 30 years in the Army, after which he worked for 14 years at Fort Sill National Cemetery. Now, he volunteers every Wednesday, manning the public information booth, mowing grass and doing “whatever they need done around here,” Talley said.
“I was a soldier when I was 18, so I’ve always understood the big picture,” said Talley, whose father, father-in-law and two son-in-laws are all veterans. “Some of these kids, they may not really understand what it’s all about. But by physically walking the grounds out here, it exposes them to the sacrifices that have been made.”
Talley and his wife, Kathy Talley, an assistant at Flower Mound, started the annual flag-planting trips, seeing an opportunity to honor local veterans and expand students’ perspectives on military service.
After gathering the students around him at the edge of Section 30 in the cemetery, Talley earnestly addressed the students, thanking them and their teachers for making the trek out to help place flags.
“I know some of you are children of veterans,” Talley said to the Flower Mound students. “Some of you have grandparents or know people who might even be buried here.”
He gave a safety briefing and explained that three veterans were being buried at the cemetery that day, so it was crucial to be courteous of their families.
“These are hallowed grounds,” Talley told the students. “It’s important to show honor and respect.”
He encouraged students to take a moment to read inscriptions before planting flags at each grave.
“Every headstone tells a story about our veterans,” Talley said. “Even though it’s only a few words, you can learn their religion, what branch they served in and what war period they served in.”
Flower Mound Superintendent and Principal Dax Trent said the students have been learning about Veterans Day in their civics classes this week, particularly how it differs from Memorial Day and why we celebrate it on the 11th day of the 11th month.
The week culminates Friday morning at 9, when Flower Mound will host its annual Veterans Day program at the school, 2805 SE Flower Mound Road.
“Our school serves a lot of military families, and every year we find we have students who have connections out here,” Trent said, looking around the cemetery.
He said students often come back to class with questions, thoughts and emotions to process from the experience. Trent said this can be especially helpful when it comes to reaching military students, who are often more transient than other students.
“It can be a conversation starter for us,” he said, “a way for us to help them outside of academics.”
After placing a few handfuls of flags in front of headstones, fourth grader Madison Isham stepped back to survey her classmates’ work. Surrounded by a gaggle of girls, Isham, 9, said her uncle and grandfather were veterans and reflected on the afternoon at the cemetery.
“It reminded us how a lot of veterans died,” she said, “and it’s a reminder that they’re all in our hearts.”
The group gathered around Talley, somberly placed small hands over hearts, and stood quietly, facing the cemetery’s largest flagpole, while a recording of Taps played nearby. They remained quiet when the song ended and seemed to soak in the significance of their afternoon.
“On Monday, when loved ones come out here to visit, they will feel ... loved that someone took the time to honor their veterans,” Talley said to the students. “You guys do this every year, and it’s a very important thing.”