By Sean Kimmons, Army News ServiceMay 24, 2018
FORT MYER, Va. -- Almost seven years ago, Spc. Dakota Williams lost more than his close friend. He lost his hero.
His friend, Spc. Dylan Johnson, had been deployed in Iraq's Diyala Province just north of Baghdad for less than a month when a bomb detonated next to his vehicle. The explosion killed him.
Inspired by his service to the country, Williams later joined the Army to follow in his footsteps.
On Thursday, he personally honored his friend when he placed an American flag at his headstone in Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery during the annual Flags In event.
"He's not here, but he's here," said Williams, 23, of Salina, Oklahoma. "He's still such an important part of my life."
All Soldiers, including Williams, in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as "The Old Guard," participated in some way in this year's Flags In. The regiment has conducted the event before every Memorial Day since 1948. It was then when the regiment was designated as the Army's official ceremonial unit.
Over a course of four hours, more than 234,000 small flags were laid in front of headstones across the 624-acre cemetery. Flags were also placed inside the Columbarium as well, where the cremated remains of service members reside. In all, enough flags were placed to account for the more than 400,000 interred or inurned within the cemetery. Regiment Soldiers also placed about 11,500 flags at the nearby Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery.
"It's a great commitment by these Soldiers to do this, to place them at the hundreds of thousands of graves here," said Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper. "What it does is it pays respect and homage to those who served before them, going all the way back to the Civil War and signals the importance of their service and that they will never be forgotten for what they did. So that they know, these young Soldiers today, much as I knew when I was in uniform, that should I have to pay that ultimate price, I would not be forgotten either in America's hearts and minds."
Col. Jason Garkey, the regiment commander, said Flags In is also a time of reflection for the Soldiers who participate.
"For every one of those headstones where we put a flag at, we have the solemn honor to put that flag in for a family member who can't be here to do it themselves," he said. "That's a privilege."
Each Soldier who took part in the event had the opportunity to place hundreds of flags into the ground, about 1 foot centered in front of every headstone.
When doing so, Garkey encouraged his Soldiers to read the name engraved onto the headstone.
"I tell them that the cemetery is alive," Garkey said. "If you pay attention, it will tell you things."
Buried throughout the cemetery are Medal of Honor recipients, young service members who were killed in war, retirees and spouses -- all with a story to share.
Garkey, who took part in his sixth Flags In, recalled one time seeing two graves next to each other with the same last name. From the dates on the headstones, he believed they belonged to a father who had served much of his adult life in the military and his son who had died in combat years before him.
"There's no worst thing than for a parent to bury their child," he said. "But they ended up there for eternity."
When his Soldiers recognize those sacrifices, he said, it helps put things into perspective while they perform their ceremonial duties.
"You realize there are many stories in the cemetery and that brings the cemetery to something more than just a place where we go to work," the colonel said. "It makes it a living, breathing entity where we honor our fallen."
For Sgt. Kevin Roman, who serves with Williams in the regiment's Presidential Salute Battery that is responsible for firing blank howitzer rounds during ceremonies, Flags In gives him the chance to appreciate those who came before him.
"Memorial Day is a day to pay your respects to the [service members] who have made the ultimate sacrifice or who have served honorably," said Roman, 23, of Bronx, New York. "For some people, it's just a holiday and the unofficial start of summer."
Before he participated in his fourth Flags In, he said every time he gets to place flags it is still meaningful to him.
"When you get out there and start reading tombstones, you gain that respect back that you may have lost during those hard days in the cemetery," he said. "Everything comes flooding into you and you get that sense of proudness and that American spirit."
Some gravesites are even more significant to other Soldiers in the regiment, whether they belong to a family member or a service member they once served with.
Garkey places a flag at the headstone of retired Lt. Col. Toby Runyon, a Vietnam War veteran and a family friend who died two years ago.
"I'll take a photo and send it to his spouse just to say that we were thinking of Toby today," he said.
Meanwhile, he said, the regiment's sentinels who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will stop at the gravesites of former sentinels.
"Everybody has got their specific places that they go to," Garkey said. "There's a healing aspect that goes into it for us. It's more than just a task, it's an experience."
Esper also placed flags at gravesites in the cemetery. A former Soldier himself, he said, he knows comrades in arms who have died in service to their country.
"On a day like this, I think about also my West Point classmates," Esper said. "I know one for sure who passed away during my war, Desert Shield/Desert Storm. I had another one who was killed when the Twin Towers were felled on 9/11. And another one killed in Afghanistan. And I think about them as well, because they are peers, and like me, I can relate more to their point in life, where they got married or had children, or maybe never had the opportunity to do either. I think about them especially."
Over Memorial Day weekend, Esper said, he hopes that Soldiers, family members, and Americans across the country will be thinking about those who fought for and died to secure freedom for the United States.
"Hopefully they will all reflect upon the great sacrifices that America's Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines make in defense of our country and in defense of our liberties," Esper said. "Particularly those fallen heroes that are here in Arlington National Cemetery."
(Editor's note: Writer C. Todd Lopez contributed to this story.)