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Ahead of Memorial Day Volunteers Place 11,000 Flags At Jacksonville National Cemetery

At least 700 people streamed into Jacksonville National Cemetery on Jacksonville’s Northside Thursday to stake armfuls of American flags in the ground next every tombstone.

Robert Willen was walking on soggy turf among the tombstones of 11,467 veterans and their family members buried at the cemetery, run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  

“This is what it’s all about,” Willen said. “My father, my grandfathers, my brothers have all served. Never forget.”

He and his longtime friend John Sutherland were wearing matching Navy hats, each clutching a handful of flags to place at graves.

“We were in the same squadron together at Cecil Field,” Willen said. “There’s a story behind these hats.”

Willen took off his hat and pointed to the acronym “CAGMO” printed across the back. It stands for Carrier Air Group Maintenance Officer. They both served more than 30 years, including tours overseas, he said.

Credit Jessica Palombo / WJCT News
Hundreds of volunteers honor Veterans at Jacksonville National Cemetery ahead of Memorial Day.

And both men have friends buried in the cemetery. Sutherland pulled a list of their names from his pocket.

“We’re going to try to see them today,” he said. “As you see here, these are six people that I served with in the Navy.”

National Cemetery Director Alphaeus Richburg said Thursday’s flag placing attracted one of the largest volunteer turnouts he’s ever seen.

“I’m very surprised, pleasantly surprised, at the crowd that’s turned out,” Alphaeus said.

The official Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery is at 10 a.m. Saturday. It’s located at 4083 Lannie Road.

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.