SOUTH PORTLAND — Jack Kuntz picked his way through the rows of gravestones at Forest City Cemetery in South Portland hunting for fellow veterans, with a makeshift hole digger in hand and dozens of American flags tucked under his suspenders.

The 70-year-old Marine veteran from Portland scanned each headstone for any mention of military, police or fire service. He lingered over the grave of Frank Sawyer, an Army private during World War II. He tidied up the bronze marker and made sure the flag he’d planted stood up straight.

“I do this for the ones who can’t,” Kuntz said. “The flags are a way to show respect, to show they’re not forgotten. Some of these graves go as far back as the Civil War. Some are new, from Afghanistan, Iraq. Old, new, doesn’t matter. We remember them all.”

Kuntz was one of a dozen members of the American Legion Harold T. Andrews Post 17 who turned out last week to decorate for Memorial Day the graves of at least 1,600 veterans interred in the Lincoln Street cemetery. About one in every 17 graves here marks a veteran’s final resting place.

Margaret Russo looks for veterans’ grave sites at the Forest City Cemetery in South Portland on Wednesday. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

In 2000, Maine began requiring municipalities to place flags on the individual graves of all veterans in honor of Memorial Day. In the past, towns had been able to honor their war dead by putting up a single flagpole and by ringing a public bell. The bell-ringing was optional, if it came at a cost.

The change met with opposition from some municipal leaders worried about the cost of buying the flags and the difficulty of finding all their war dead. For example, Lewiston, a one-time flagpole city, bought 5,000 flags in 2001 after estimating that one-third of all its burials were veterans.

American Legion posts across the state join other veterans groups, churches, youth clubs, businesses, and churches to help towns comply with the law and honor those who served. Most towns require the groups to collect the flags after the holiday.

Some towns have mapped out all their veterans’ burial sites, or created lists of names for the volunteer groups to check off, but Forest City has none. Instead, the volunteers walk the neatly laid-out corridors row by row, relying on their keen eyes not to miss one.

Each  of the volunteers has their own routine, said Vietnam Marine veteran Paul Avery. He likes to say the names aloud, and keep track of which branches of service are popular among certain families or in the cemetery’s large Armenian and Greek sections.

Suz Lamb of Westbrook places flags on the graves of veterans at the Forest City Cemetery in South Portland on Wednesday. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Paula Hollenkamp of Westbrook has been placing flags on veterans’ graves at Forest City for the last 15 years. At first, she wasn’t much help. She found herself so fascinated by each individual veteran, and so awed by their sacrifice, that she didn’t cover much ground.

After years of practice, she has established a rapid yet respectful rhythm.

“I still make a point to think about every single one of them,” Hollenkamp said. “They deserve that. But they all deserve a flag, too, and I wouldn’t want somebody off in some way-off corner of the cemetery to go unmarked because I didn’t do my job.”

Curtis Ballantine, the commander of Kuntz’s American Legion post, has been decorating the Forest City Cemetery for Memorial Day for the last 11 years. The first time he did it, the Vietnam naval veteran was not sure how he’d feel. Sad? Angry? Dutiful? Instead, he walked away feeling great.

“There is an old saying that you die twice – once the day you actually die and the second time is the day that nobody remembers your name,” Ballantine said. “Doing this, we’re keeping all these veterans, and what they did for this country, alive.”


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