Ask Rick Hinson, 61, where he’s from and he will say, “Aragon mill hill. Rock Hill, South Carolina. United States of America. Marine Corps. Vietnam 1969, 1970.”
So it was no surprise Thursday, as day turned to dusk, that Hinson gave up his evening to walk through Rock Hill’s Grandview Memorial Park cemetery, where so many of York County’s military veterans are buried, to help place American flags near the grave of each veteran.
Hinson was part of a group of young and old, men and women, veterans and not, who put out 1,700 flags. One grave at a time, each tiny flagpole driven into the ground.
“I was a mine sweeper,” Hinson said. “Combat Engineers. We swept for bombs.”
It was some of the deadliest work of the war. Hinson knew many Marines, and Army soldiers, who did not come home to mill hills across America because those troops were dead in that horrible war.
“I’ve been doing this, putting flags out, for years,” said Hinson, a member of the Rock Hill VFW Post 2889 Honor Guard. “I do it for every guy who went to war and did not come back.”
The flags are placed each year at veterans’ graves by the VFW and other volunteers at graves at several cemeteries in the days before Memorial Day. That day, coming up Monday, is for these people somber and serious. It is not a day of picnics that signifies the beginning of summer. It is not a long weekend. It is remembering those who died from bullets and bombs.
“Memorial Day is the one day a year where we honor those who died in each war,” said Don Vinsack, commander of the VFW post and a Vietnam veteran himself. “This is not work to do this duty. This is an honor. Memorial Day, it makes you think: Maybe those who died for their country deserve more than one day.”
So each year the veterans organizations recruit volunteers to help make Memorial Day special. This year youth bowlers helped. The ladies auxiliary helped. Even four Air Force Junior ROTC cadets from Rock Hill High School helped.
The students will get what is called “service hours” for doing it, but credit for service time isn’t why brothers Kenneth and John Ross, and Mary Byars, and J’Zabrion Boger spent the evening putting out flags.
“It is an honor,” said Boger.
“It is showing respect,” said Kenneth Ross.
With dozens of volunteers, the cemetery quickly filled up with those scores of flags that turned into hundreds that turned into more than a thousand.
Greg Ross, an Army veteran and father of the Ross teens, helped train some of the soldiers from the Fort Mill Army National Guard 1222nd Combat Engineers unit that came home from Afghanistan in 2010 after a year sweeping bombs in the most dangerous job on earth – the same job Rick Hinson had in Vietnam.
As these veterans such as Ross put out flags, so many veterans talked of the 178th National Guard unit, based in Rock Hill. That unit of combat engineers, more than 160 strong, leaves in about five weeks for a year in Afghanistan doing the bomb disposal that is, in 2012 as in 1969, the most dangerous job on earth.
All these tough veterans, many of them combat veterans with limps and badges, medals and metal plates in their bodies, all said they sure hope never to place any flag for those soldiers on Memorial Day. But they honor the service, and the sacrifice, of these soldiers who do what they are told to do.
“We call it duty,” said Rick Hinson, that mill hill guy and Marine veteran of Vietnam combat. “That’s what being an American is all about.”