Seven-year-old Preston Shepherd gently placed his foot at the base of a grave at Baltimore National Cemetery on Friday, stepped back and carefully planted an American flag in the ground.
The Cub Scout from Catonsville-based Den 307 took no time to admire his handiwork. He jogged to the next grave, his yellow kerchief bounced with each stride, then slowly repeated the process.
Preston was one of hundreds of Scouts from dozens of troops in the metro area who commemorated Memorial Day at the veterans cemetery at 5501 Frederick Ave. by planting a flag at each of the more than 44,000 graves.
This year, the 25th anniversary of the Memorial Flag Ceremony, it took no more than 15 minutes from when the Scouts began planting flags around 6:30 p.m. to transform the 72.2 acre cemetery into a patriotic scene.
After the flags were planted, many of the Scouts gathered at a section of the cemetery for a presentation that included a color guard. Behind the podium were the flags of all 50 states. Beyond them, the recently planted flags waved in front of the grave stones thanks to a persistent breeze.
The Friday night tradition has taken place at the start of the Memorial Day Weekend for the past 25 years and has become an effective exercise to teach the young Scouts about understanding the sacrifices servicemen and servicewomen have made.
"This is the chance for the these boys to learn why we have freedom," said Tim Mills, a Catonsville resident who leads Halethorpe-based Troop 337.
James Poling, 6, a member of Pack 337 from Catonsville, said he felt "really good" planting the flags "for the people that died that helped us for life."
Arbutus Middle School eighth-grader Morgan Gross, 14, is the patrol leader for Halethorpe-based Troop 764. His appearance on May 25 marked his second consecutive year of attending the ceremony.
Told that some of the soldiers who fought and died were only a few years older than he was, the Halethorpe resident responded, "I guess they didn't have a lot to experience.
"(I feel) a small bit of remorse, wishing I could help if I lived at that time period," he said, noting he would have wanted to serve as a medic, if given the opportunity.
Luke Rau, 12, another member of Troop 764 and a Halethorpe resident, said he enjoys the ceremony because "we could place out the flags for the people who led our country to freedom."
Catonsville Elementary School second-grader Ella Juengst, 8, a member of Brownie Troop 178, has taken part in the ceremony for four years.
One of her friends has a father serving in Kuwait, and she said that she feels like she's honoring him.
"I like that we're being helpful," Ella said. "We're sort of honoring people."
Dan Hall, the Scoutmaster for Catonsville-based Troop 307, has attended the ceremony about 10 times and noted it helps youth understand what it means to serve one's country.
"This is one of the best examples of duty to country," said Hall, a Catonsville resident. "This is an easy way to grasp that responsibility."
Hall never served in the military but said that may be what makes the ceremony so meaningful.
"Maybe because I wasn't in the military, I can do service and honor the people who were," Hall said.
Troop 307 member J.P. Dixon, a sixth-grader from Columbia, played taps on his bugle at the closing ceremony.
Before he placed a flag, J.P., who has attended the ceremony three other times, said, "It's kind of an emotional experience.
"It's nice to plant the flags for people who have made the ultimate sacrifice," he said.
Seven-year-old Kennedy Riley, a member of Cub Scout Pack 307, said the ceremony made him feel both happy and sad.
"I had to put flags on dead people and that made me sad," said the Catonsville resident. "The happy part was I was doing something for Memorial Day."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun