Rain doesn’t stop town from honoring heroes

Scout troops and volunteers stake flags in honor of veterans buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery
By John Donegan

This story originally appeared in the 6/3/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.

Local Scouts made good on their oaths and law on Saturday, May 29, to brave teeming spring showers and decorate the gravesites of American veterans.

Nearly 70 Scouts, from various troops across the Town of Rye and the Village of Larchmont, gathered at St. Mary’s Cemetery on High Street to exchange the tattered American flags residing beside the gravestones of veterans with new ones. The local Father John M. Grady Council 503 of the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic group based out of New Haven, Conn., and volunteers from the Port Chester Fire Department were also in attendance.

Fifty years ago, the country observed its first Memorial Day on the last Monday in May as an act of Congress moved the day from May 30 and turned it into a federal holiday. Every year since then, the nation has slowed on this day to remember and reflect on the lives of military personnel who have died with gravesite visits, parades and speeches. The tradition of placing flags on the tombstones of veterans is a sign of remembrance and gratitude, completed prior to Monday’s annual observance of Memorial Day.

The Scouts present included Port Chester’s Troop 400, Girl Troop 2899, Girl Troop 420, and Pack 400. Also in attendance were Pack 3 from Rye Brook and Troop 4 from Larchmont.

The various Scout groups normally plan the event in tandem with the Port Chester Knights of Columbus and American Legion chapters, though the latter did not attend due to continued COVID-19 concerns. The annual Memorial Day parade was also cancelled this year due to concerns surrounding the pandemic.

“There used to be a whole lot more veterans that were able to do this, but that number has dwindled,” said Knights of Columbus organizer Charlie Sacco. “You can’t thank them enough, but this is one way of doing that.”

Sacco organized the event along with Troop 400 Scoutmaster Moe Acevedo, who was skeptical about turnout since they expected torrential rain.

They sent out emails this year with some reluctance, stating in each message that attendance was optional given the predicted weather conditions. “We thought it was going to be a small turnout, because of the rain,” he said.

The sky on Saturday fashioned a wall of iron-grey, with a leaden rain—drops as big as buckshot—that splattered to the ground with a pitch like buzzing, irate bees.

Acevedo was surprised when over 80 people—Scouts, parents, and volunteers alike—showed up to the cemetery, adorning rain jackets, umbrellas, boots and rubber mallets. Few in attendance complained or even acknowledged the rain; they instead swept the grounds diligently and kept to the task at hand.

“I tell you it was one the best turnouts we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Upon arrival, the troops formed into lines at the top the cemetery, organized by group and ordered by rank. Older Scouts were entrusted a rubber mallet while parents handled them for the younger ones. The Scouts filed into lines and from there were given bundles of flags; the Town of Rye donated 1,000 for the occasion.

From there, they began to walk the graves. Of the 2,800 burial sites at St. Mary’s Cemetery, an estimated 600 belong to veterans. The stones are spread throughout the grounds, though most rested at the foot of the wide, hilly rise that makes up the cemetery, the oldest section. While largely well maintained, some of the stones have fallen into disrepair or looked to have been reclaimed by the Earth, slightly veiled by stray grass or dulled by decades of rain.

A flag is always placed at the back left of each flat marble maker or front left of each headstone. Some Scouts poked in the emblem and carried on. Some sifted through the area as their parents lectured them on the importance of the day. Some stopped for a second and stared down at each stone, reflecting.

“Memorial Day is a kind of mixed emotion,” said Port Chester veteran Chet Edwards. “Many of our friends and comrades—some we didn’t know and some we served with—have passed giving the ultimate sacrifice in combat. And many of them gave their lives after they got home because of the ravages of things that happened while they were in combat, such as Agent Orange.”

Edwards is a regular at these ceremonies, serving on the Westchester County Veterans Advisory Board and the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 49. He’s also a retired colonel from the New York State Guard and a Vietnam veteran who served from 1966-72. He takes the old flags from the grounds and properly retires them before their ceremonial burning or burial.

Despite the large turnout, few veterans showed up. Edwards, more outspoken than his peers, said that many don’t want to attend events like this, as it is often too painful of a reminder. The 72-year-old also recognized that more and more of his comrades have joined the ranks within this cemetery and urged the importance of keeping their memory alive.“So we remember them,” he said. “We remember good times with them, we honor them and their service and we mourn their passing and we thank them for giving us the freedoms we have today.”

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