Joseph Sincavage recalled watching helplessly as a fellow senior veteran stumbled and fell at an area cemetery.
It was during one of their annual missions to place Memorial Day flags at the graves of every person who served in the military. With their forge-ahead mindset, participating veterans often resist allowing physical limitations and the risk of pitted cemetery grounds to stand in their way of completing the task.
“I picked him up and told him to get in his car and go home,” said Sincavage, an 84-year-old Swoyersville resident and commander of the Korean War Veterans of Wyoming Valley. “They want to do it.”
Luzerne County Veteran Affairs Director James Spagnola recently met with Sincavage and three other veterans who have been decorating the graves for years as part of a public awareness effort to keep the tradition going decades from now.
The county buys the flags for Memorial Day decorating, which is a state law, Spagnola said.
Placement of the more than 85,000 flags on graves annually falls entirely on volunteers, and the 60-plus veteran services posts that have been handling the task are increasingly reliant on non-veteran help, he said.
In recent years, Spagnola usually has received frantic calls shortly before Memorial Day reporting cemeteries that have no flags.
“That’s what we want to try to avoid this year,” Spagnola said. “There are posts out there that really need help decorating cemeteries.”
Spagnola advises citizens or groups interested in helping to call their local veteran service organization or contact his office at 570-706-3960. He said his office will attempt to match volunteers with groups needing help. Service organizations will start picking up flags from the county the week of May 7.
Last year’s call reporting undecorated graves came the Friday before Memorial Day from a woman in tears, Spagnola said.
Al Kircher, chaplain at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 283 in Kingston, scrambled to round up extra flags and volunteers to address the emergency situation at a Larksville cemetery, which stemmed from the folding of a Boy Scout troop that had assisted with the decorating in the past.
A 73-year-old Forty Fort resident, Kircher now added this assignment to his territory, bringing the count of flags his group places to approximately 6,000 at seven cemeteries, including ones in the Back Mountain, Pringle and Luzerne areas.
“If it wasn’t for the Boy Scouts, the job wouldn’t get done,” Kircher said.
Sincavage, who walks with a cane, still picks up the boxes of flags from the county Veteran Affairs Office. However, he must now be content remaining by his car to pass out the approximately 1,000 flags to Scouts who have been helping the last few years.
“I just can’t do it,” he said with a tinge of self-imposed guilt. “I remember years ago when I was able to. I was out there putting the flags out.”
At one time, Sincavage had more than 20 veterans participating in the decorating, but it’s down to about seven.
Group membership once exceeding 220 has decreased to 74 members and “counting down,” he said, rattling off the names of a few in nursing homes. He said anyone who has been stationed in Korea up to the present day can join his group. Sincavage added one new member in the last three years but lost approximately 30 in the same period.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know how much longer the Korean War Veterans are going to be in existence,” he said.
Ron Gitkos, commander of the West Pittston American Legion, said he’s tried advertisements and other membership recruitment efforts.
Veteran service organizations in many communities were once a haven for soldiers returning home after World War II to socialize over a 10-cent beer with others who shared their experience, Gitkos said. Today’s veterans often cite busy work schedules as reasons to decline membership, he said.
“Getting new members is hard,” said the 69-year-old Exeter resident.
Ron Faust, adjutant of the West Pittston American Legion, said there have been some new members.
“But when we get a new one, one dies or two die,” said Faust, 74, of West Pittston. “That’s what happens.”
The tending of graves by family members also seems to be declining, Gitkos said.
“If we can’t get enough kids interested in this tradition, then it’s going to fade, and your cemeteries will be overrun,” he said.
The flags are inserted in holders also provided by the county to show respect for everyone who served, wartime or not, from the time of the Revolutionary War to the present day, the veterans said.
As he moves from grave to grave decorating, Faust said he often reflects on the trauma some must have endured in battle.
“All of these markers represent somebody who made a commitment, and they were away from their families,” he said.
Staying on top of graves that should be decorated is a challenge, the veterans said.
Kircher was at a Pringle cemetery his group agreed to take over when he spotted a glimpse of what appeared to be a mostly buried government-issued military marker.
“I started peeling the grass away, and sure enough it was a World War II forgotten veteran,” he said.
The West Pittston American Legion decorates about 2,000 graves at five cemeteries in the West Pittston area with help of Scouts, community and school groups, and citizens.
Last year, about 60 people of all ages responded to his group’s request for help. This year, Gitkos is hoping even more people get involved in decorating to be part of the “1st Lt. Jeff DePrimo flag brigade” in honor of his nephew, a 35-year-old Pennsylvania National Guard officer from Pittston who was killed in Afghanistan in May 2008.
“We’re trying to incorporate the community. I don’t care if we have 300 people. It will be vast confusion, but the job will get done,” Gitkos said.
Those who have other commitments can help at any time by visiting a cemetery to adjust crooked flag holders, the veterans said.
Sincavage was overjoyed when he spotted two college students at a cemetery straightening up flag holders, which can take a beating from the weather and cemetery maintenance. The women retrieved bent ones so he could replace them.
He winced recounting a frequent reply when he asks children the meaning of Memorial Day: a day off from school.
“Too many children just are not being taught patriotism,” he said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.