SELMA – In order to be ready for Memorial Day on May 27, hundreds of U.S. flags needed to be installed on the grounds of the Selma’s Cemetery grounds. Although Selma High’s MCJROTC cadets would install the much larger flags the morning of that ceremony, help was needed even before then to prepare for the service.
Roosevelt Elementary’s fourth-grade classes of Colleen Wilson, Char Jones and Erin Lewis were up for the task on May 24. The teachers said the project boils down to one thing: teaching respect.
“It’s a tradition Mrs. Wilson started about 15 years ago,” Jones said. “We talk to the kids about how these soldiers served their country and how we’re honoring their memory. We talk about the differences between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. We also bring them the day before to teach them about cemetery etiquette,” she said. “We teach them not just about the holiday, but the respect these people deserve.”
The students were helping Selma’s American Legion Post 12 prepare for the event. The organization hosts the annual Memorial Day service and members said learning the lesson of respect is one best learned early in life.
“Everybody has relatives that served. A lot of people have given their lives to keep us free. They should have respect for the flag and what it stands for,” American Legion Post 12 member John Gomez said.
Selma Unified Superintendent Tanya Fisheralsohelped the students search the headstones for Gold Stars or insignias to indicate the person had served in the military.
“I’m very proud that we’re keeping this tradition that’s been established by Mrs. Wilson. We’re keeping this tradition going and we’re teaching the students the importance of honoring the service of our veterans.”
Fisher said she appreciated that the teachers explained the meaning behind the upcoming holiday and why they were expected to behave in a dignified manner while at the cemeteries.
“Often times, we just say, ‘don’t, don’t, don’t’ but we don’t say why and that it’s about respect. All of that is important for [the students] to understand the ‘why.’ The rules of decorum are important.”
Wilson said that one of the added benefits to having the students help prepare for Memorial Day is that when it comes to the next time they visit the cemetery, they know how to conduct themselves.
“There was a huge issue last year [during Fourth of July] with people barbecuing and setting off fireworks. Having the kids practice this type of respect, when their families come here, they’ll understand and hopefully share that with their families. They can keep that respect going for the cemetery and not turn it into a place of dishonor,” Wilson said.
Isaias ‘Ike’ Talamantes is another American Legion Post 12 member who helped pass out the flags to the students. He walked with some as they combed the grounds pointing out missed headstones and answering questions.
Talamantes just returned from taking a Central Valley Honor Flight May 16 to view military memorials in Washington D.C. This flight was filled with Vietnam veterans and he recalls that when his duty as a U.S. Marine was over in 1970, the return home made him feel dejected rather than respected. Some 50 years later, having school children shake his hand and thank him for his service seemed to heal some of that hurt.
“For a long time I wouldn’t talk about it. My son would ask me but for a long time, I didn’t talk about what happened over there,” Talamantes said. “I’d lost a few friends and one that was on my buddy system. He stepped on a booby trap and got killed over there.”
Traveling with the other Vietnam vets was a chance to swap stories, bond over the sacrifices and continue healing.
“[The Central Valley Honor Flight] was very emotional and very moving for me,” he said of the trip. “It was an unpopular war. When the veterans came back, they were called names, or spit on. So for a long time, we didn’t talk about it. We kept to ourselves and it was hard on us. In Washington D.C., there were kids and adults from different states on tour and they’d come up and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ That means a lot when you hear that. Hearing ‘thank you’ hits you right in the heart.”
Reflecting on the sacrifices made, not just by the military service men and women, but also by their parents and families, Talamantes said the end of the conflict didn’t always mean the battle was over.
“You came back and your wife would be a lot of support. Sometimes, if it wasn’t for your better half, we wouldn’t have made it.”
As the students finished placing the flags, Talamantes said he appreciated the efforts the Selma teachers were making to instill respect in the students.
“If it wasn’t for all these veterans from World War I, World War II, the Korean War and even the newer veterans, we wouldn’t be the freest country in the world. This is one of the greatest countries in the world. There may be issues, and we should improve this country, but like they say, ‘freedom is not free.’ There’s a cost. Many soldiers lose their life and there are still the hidden scars inside.”
The lesson wasn’t lost on the students.
Eowyn Berndt said the task of placing flags made her feel both honored, but saddened, at the same time. She knew veterans were buried at Selma’s cemeteries but it wasn’t until she saw all the flags waving in the breeze that she realized just how many were laid to rest.
“A lot of people died serving us and we need to respect them. They deserve to be marked with the flags they served,” Berndt said. “It makes me feel happy and sort of sad too because they sacrificed time with their families when they went to war. When we mark their graves, it shows their family they’re loved and not forgotten.”