On a sunny Sunday morning, dozens of Boy Scouts began carefully anchoring candles in sand poured in paper bags and placed each luminaria on a military grave at an Essex cemetery.

By dusk, more than 700 lights flickered softly in precisely spaced rows, greeting visitors at the fifth pre-Veterans Day service at Holly Hills Memorial Gardens.

"We want people to realize that these are not just candles in a bag," said Shirley Robinson, chairwoman of the event. "Every one of these luminaria represents a person who defended our country, including 135 military killed in action. We owe these guys so much. This is our chance to say, 'Thank you.'"

The annual observance pays homage to the men and women who have served their country from World War I to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Red bags represented those soldiers who died defending the country, while white bags were placed on the graves of those who had been honorably discharged. Most bags were decorated with a cut-out star as well.

Zachary Feltz, 13, a Boy Scout who serves as a chaplain's aide in his troop, gazed at the glow emanating from the candles and pronounced, "It's perfect.

"This is our way to honor our veterans and show respect to all the military from around here and everywhere else," he said.

As the names of the 17 most recently deceased veterans were called, Feltz and fellow Scouts lit the last of the candles. The red bags cast a crimson glow on the center stones engraved with names of the fallen.

"I hope this event instills in our young people the why of our service and helps them understand the sacrifice," said Delmar Dickson, 78, a Korean War veteran.

The event included a history of Veterans' Day, speeches by veterans and tributes to those who served.

"This activity allows the Scouts to learn not only about soldiers who have passed, but also about those still serving," said John Heuchan, an assistant Scout master.

As darkness descended, the crowd stood in the chill evening air and joined in anthems. When Robinson called the combat veterans in the crowd forward, nine men, including Dickson and Al Clasing Jr., approached. They saluted as the Star Spangled Banner played and led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.

"This service is an inspiration to the entire community for the value it places on service," said Clasing, 85, a World War II Navy veteran who fought in the Pacific campaigns.

Members of the Patriot Guard — a group that seeks to protect families from protesters during military funerals — waited by their motorcycles until the final prayer. Then, they led a procession that encircled the monument slowly before filing out of the cemetery.

"There are boys here who may become soldiers," said Bill Staats, a Patriot Guard and Air Force veteran, who served in Afghanistan. "They need to know their service will be honored."

The candles were left to burn through the night. The Scouts would retrieve the bags the next day.

"These candles will burn out, but we won't let the sacrifices of our military go out of our hearts," said Arthur Beck, a Scout leader.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com