On Oct. 26, Anne Kirkpatrick and Jo-Ann Hornyak will travel to First Congregational Church UCC in Branford, Conn., the next church on the list to host the Field of Flags. The members of Somers (Conn.) Congregational United Church of Christ will show the volunteers how to place the 6,616 American flags in the ground, spaced 12 inches apart, in neat, even rows, representing each life lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They will hang a laminated copy of the most recent list of casualties on a large display board, and then they will leave, returning three weeks later to pack up the exhibit and take it to the next city.
"We used to stay for the dedication ceremonies," Kirkpatrick said. "But it can be so emotional and overwhelming that you get home and you're just drained."
Field of Flags was the brainchild of Kirkpatrick and Hornyak in 2005 as a way for Somers UCC to show support for our fallen troops. The first Field of Flags took place on the church's front lawn and displayed 2,231 flags, one for each casualty of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at that time. The event garnered publicity from local news outlets, and more than 60 churches in nine states have since hosted Field of Flags. There is no cost associated with hosting the memorial, but each church is asked to give a donation that goes toward replacing the flags and laminating the casualty lists. The wait to host the memorial for a three-week period is currently about two years, and hosting it on Veterans Day or Memorial Day is next to impossible.
"Each time we set it up, the newspaper covers it and someone calls from a church," Kirkpatrick said. "We have more churches than we have months in the year."
But Branford's First Congregational UCC is a church that the Field of Flags committee deemed worthy to host the memorial this Veterans Day weekend. The church works with local veterans hospitals and homeless shelters and organizes 16 "Take a Vet Fishing" trips each year, where volunteers take blind veterans fishing on Killam's Point, a lakefront owned by the church. The church also hosts fly tying courses for veterans in the winter and participates in the town's Veterans Day and Memorial Day parades. After a two-year wait, Jeff Buggee, First Congregational UCC member and coordinator of many of the veterans programs, is thrilled to host the memorial from Oct. 27 to Nov. 11.
"We were really quite honored," Buggee said of being chosen to host Field of Flags on Veterans Day. "Everyone says what we do is a wonderful thing, but we enjoy it so much we feel guilty."
Buggee and his team are still preparing for the Oct. 27 dedication ceremony and hope to involve the community in the event. There will be a special ceremony led by a retired Marine to honor soldiers who are missing in action, and Buggee is working with the high school band to play Taps, and local boy and girl scout troops to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
"This is an offshoot of what we already do with veterans," Buggee said. "This really shows the true cost of the war. If you think about it, each flag is a father or son or husband."
Kirkpatrick says this is precisely the realization Field of Flags causes many people to have. She will never forget one of the first people who visited the original memorial in Somers. A woman pulled over to the side of the road, got out of her van and walked over to the casualty name board. When Kirkpatrick asked if she needed any help, the woman responded that she saw a story about the event in the newspaper and drove all the way from New Hampshire to find the name of her son.
"She thanked us so much and told us that it meant so much that her son hasn't been forgotten," Kirkpatrick said. "Before we could even really respond she got in her van and drove off."
"We just wanted to make a difference hopefully in the lives of a few people," Kirkpatrick continued. "Like anything else in the church, you start off as mission outreach and you never really know how many people it touches."