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As Memorial Day nears, volunteers decorate thousands of veterans’ graves

Wreaths Across America at Jacksonville National Cemetery. (Facebook)

Volunteers had already decorated Vincent Kraus’ headstone with a thin American flag by the time Linda Morgan pulled up to the Jacksonville National Cemetery on Thursday afternoon.

Kraus and Morgan lived next door to each other for two decades. He helped raise her 14- and 10-year old children, picking them up from school in his ’84 blue Chrysler van and inviting them for Sunday meals. Morgan wiped tears off her cheeks with the back of her hand as she bowed her head and kneeled before her neighbor, her friend. A heart attack killed the retired veteran on Dec. 29, 2015.

Navy veterans, Army wives and young military hopefuls gathered Thursday, four days before Memorial Day, to poke flags into the soil surrounding ribbons of white headstones. The cemetery is the resting place of 14,800 veterans and adds an average of 1,600 veterans each year, said Alphaeus Richburg, the cemetery director.

Richburg said between 45 and 50 spouses visit their loved ones weekly. But Thursday, the turnout was closer to a few hundred as the volunteers flocked to memorialize the veterans.

Joe Purvis and Greg Klabunde are two veterans, Army and Navy, respectively, who helped dress the 14,800 headstones. They both lost buddies while on duty.

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Purvis said he came to the cemetery to salute any man or woman who served, including his son, Keith, who’s stationed in Germany.

Klabunde said he wanted to reconnect with his country after serving on the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy CV-67, a name sprawled in mustard yellow font across his baseball cap. He said he wants to recognize anyone willing to take a bullet for his freedom, including those as young as 18. The volunteers should also be able to enjoy a cold beer, he said. But he’s not a politician, he insisted.

David Valentin is 16 and not old enough to enlist. But he remembers the day he told his parents his plans to join the Navy.

“Mama and Daddy, can I talk to you?” he asked as his mother rinsed laundry. Valentin said he knew he wanted to achieve the same master chief rank as his grandfather, who served for 28 years. It didn’t hurt that he’d fallen madly in love with the film “American Sniper.”

When Valentin told his parents his plans, they both sobbed like babies, he said. They were terrified. But they’d always held the utmost respect for the troops. Valentin’s mother and 19-year-old sister accompanied him Thursday to place flags.

There were other volunteers, people like Gail Williams, placing flags across the cemetery. She’s got military genes in her blood; her great-grandfathers and grandfathers served in the military and her father fought in World War II. Not to mention, she married a Navy man. “I’m not a soldier, so this is the best I could do,” she said.

Some of Thursday’s volunteers came out for their kids, like Sherawn Jackson, who waved goodbye to her husband just over three months ago. It was around 7 a.m. when they stepped onto the dock as their two-year-old daughter, Arianna, and their seven-year-old son, Maddix, followed. They expected the deployment of her husband, Richard Blankenship. It was supposed to happen. They had about 13 months to process it all and exchanged farewells that morning with only the slightest glimpse of emotions.

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Jackson said they wanted to stay strong in front of the small family they’d created. Actually, she said, it wasn’t much of a “goodbye.” It was a “see you later.”

Jackson and Blankenship met nine years ago. He lived in Miami. She lived in Boca Raton. They hit it off, watching movies and eating sushi on the weekends. Now, he sends her daily emails. It’s a relief when she sees her inbox light up. Sometimes he’ll even write to the kids. “Daddy loves you,” she’ll tell them. “He says hi.”

Jackson knows not all families are as lucky. While she doesn’t know her husband’s exact coordinates, she knows he’s aboard the Iwo Jima. He’s OK. She sighed as her daughter shimmied a chubby pair of legs through flags and headstones while her son darted around in a pair of red white and blue striped shorts. She brought them to help distribute flags because she wants them to feel the importance of memorializing those who risked their lives for their freedoms.

Memorial Day is more than an excuse for a good barbecue, she said.

Scott Bassett, a retired senior chief who served in the Navy, brought his 11-year-old son Vinny to place flags among the headstones. He wants his son to understand the gravity of memorializing fallen soldiers and veterans, that it’s not just something to paste on a bumper sticker. His son didn’t know much about the military; he didn’t see the life Bassett lived with his wife, Corina, who lugged waist-high Walmart suitcases and a one-year-old across an airport in Iceland just to see Bassett.

It’s a family affair for many.

Bassett said his son, Shane, 31, just got out of the Air Force. “I guess my grandkids are going to go Marines or Coast Guard,” he chuckled. Bassett wants to be buried in a national cemetery himself, perhaps by his hometown, Lake Panasoffkee. That’s his father’s plan, and he follows what his father does, he said. Just like he followed his father into the Army.

Vincent Kraus might have liked all this. He loved his black Marines baseball cap and saluted military men and women whenever he could find them. His grave lay at the far end of the plots, but Linda Morgan wasn’t surprised that the small Stars and Stripes had already been planted at his grave. It was almost Memorial Day, after all.

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© 2018 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.