HERMITAGE — Despite the cloudy skies, cars and SUVs intermittently drove down the roads at America’s Cemetery while 444 American Flags continued flying in the breeze Sunday.
“I’d say for us it started about the middle of last week,” said John Flynn, owner of America’s Cemetery. “I think some of the weather we had may have kept people away at first, but we’re seeing people come to pay their respects.”
John’s father, Thomas M. Flynn, first purchased the cemetery in 1977, which was then called Hillcrest Memorial Park. The cemetery was later renamed “America’s Cemetery” in 2015, before Thomas passed away in 2018.
Thomas served in the Army between the Korean and Vietnam wars, and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. Even though it’s been almost a year since his passing, a trip through America’s Cemetery can still reveal Thomas’ efforts to commemorate his fellow veterans — including the War on Terror Memorial, and the Avenue of 444 Flags, which began as a tribute to the Americans held during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979.
“He never talked too much about his time in the service, but something that he was very passionate about throughout his life was trying to help his fellow veterans,” John said. “He wasn’t afraid of death; he just had so many programs he was working on in the last few years of his life that he wanted to see through.”
One of the more recent additions that may not be as readily noticeable can be found among the American flags near the War on Terror Memorial — a series of metallic looking cylinders with locks and lids featuring the logos of each branch of the armed forces. Called ossuaries, the cylinders go deeper underground and provide a place for veterans’ cremains — a person’s remains after cremation — to be interred with their fellow comrades-in-arms.
The ossuaries were originally begun by Thomas several years ago, which John said came due to his father’s travels across the country for veterans’ events and conventions.
“Sometimes the vet doesn’t have any loved ones or they don’t know what to do with the cremains, so their ashes end up left at funeral homes, or someone takes the cremains home and eventually they die as well,” John said. “So something that was really important to my dad when he was going across the country was offering to have those vets buried here, so they can be with the buddies they served with.”
Something else Thomas maintained was a grief therapy dog, a golden retriever named Solomon with the Canine Companions for Independence program. Offering therapy for vets and allowing them a level of independence with tasks such as getting dressed, John’s family ended up adopting Solomon and another German shepherd his father cared for after Thomas’ passing.
“We already have a couple dogs that they get along with, and they’re able to run around our property, so they seem to be content,” John said.
Though neither of Thomas’ two sons served in the armed forces, John made a career as a firefighter in both Los Angeles and in Hermitage, where he serves as fire chief. Even with the differences between the military and firefighting, John said he can understand the camaraderie between vets his father spoke of due to the camaraderie that exists between firefighters.
“Whenever you get the chance to talk to veterans, you can tell that they have a connection,” John said. “You have people from opposite parts of the country being brought together, and then they go through training, and they’re tasked with protecting each other. And that’s something that stays with them for the rest of their lives.”
While he still plans to continue offering most of the programs started by his father, such as allowing veterans the chance to have their cremains interred in the ossuaries, John said his father belonged to at least 10 to 15 different veterans groups — which makes it “difficult” uncovering every single program he was involved with, even a year after his passing.
“We’re actually still trying to figure everything out because of how many different veteran organizations he was a part of,” John said.
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