Mark “Moses” Steins bows his head in reverence during a moment of silence on Memorial Day 2020.
The oversized American flag hanging in the Perkins parking lot off S. Douglas Highway holds a special place for many within the county, particularly when they noticed it was missing. A fierce thunderstorm hit Campbell County in late August last year, leaving a torrent of wind-torn tree branches and hail-damaged cars. Among the destruction was the 30 x 20-foot American flag outside Perkins, which had fallen to the ground after its 100-foot pole had snapped in two.
Since then, the parking lot had been without its patriotic trademark. Until yesterday, when VFW Auxiliary post 7756 Commander Lee Yake and his crew resurrected the fallen icon in a Memorial Day ceremony of their own.
Though the circumstances were coincidental, the flag’s return could not have possibly been timed in a more symbolic manner, Yake said, as Gillette residents joined in the restaurant’s parking lot to raise the flag in honor of the countless heroes who have died in service to their country.
The ceremony began with the group of four from Yake’s Post participating in the flag raising until once again, weather intervened to challenge the flag’s fate. As the men attempted to lift the giant, new flagpole, a section of the flag caught in the wind, prompting former Marine Mark “Moses” Steins to sprint out of the crowd to keep it from falling onto the ground while passing vehicles ceremoniously honked in support. The wind continued to pick up as more crowd members rushed in to help Yake and crew crank the flag up the pole as one man began singing “Star Spangled Banner” as the crowd stared into the sky reverently.
Perkins restaurant owner Rodger Hefner was happy to see Old Glory back on its post, recalling the fateful day it had fallen in the parking lot, east toward the highway, miraculously without damaging any of the parked cars or passing pedestrians.
Preserving the flag has always posed a challenge, Hefner said, given its size and the fact that the manufacturing company no longer offers to warranty flags in this zip code. Given the county’s harsh winds and winters, he said it’s not uncommon to go through about five flags per year.
For now, however, he’s happy to see the flag once again assume its exigent presence among the Gillette skyline.
An hour earlier, the same group of veterans and family members met for a Memorial Day Breakfast hosted by the local Auxiliary Post.
Sitting at a table at the American Legion, Steins, who was enlisted in the Marine Corps from 1967-1972, was surrounded by a handful of fellow servicemen. At first glance, the men cloaked in black leather looked a bit intimidating hunched around their table as they discussed the past, present and future of the nation.
Among their hopes is that this history and lessons learned get passed down to the younger generations. Between them, the three veterans had undergone a total of 15 years in various branches of the military and unanimously agreed that the time they’d spent enlisted contributed to their solicitude for protecting and honoring the American way of life.
“Regardless of all the crazy stuff going on right now, I want kids to understand what the cost of freedom really is, because it wasn’t free,” former enlisted Navy sailor Kevin Guedesse said.
Around them, others were swarming with this message as the breakfast’s attendees dedicated their day to honoring those who sacrificed their lives in the name of liberty.
At one table, long-time member of the Post Michelle Hopkins talked about having grown up with soldier ideals embedded in her blood. Her father had served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, she said, and because of that, Hopkins had spent years of her life committed to honoring and assisting veterans.
As a child, Hopkins used to take dance lessons at the American Legion, she laughed, since her father was a life-time member, eventually rising to the role of Commander. As she reminisced, Hopkins said she’d “pretty much always” been involved with the Post. Now, she works at Fort Carson overseeing their risk program. She estimated the military base’s population to be around 27,000 soldiers. For the last 20 years, she’s worked with active-duty soldiers to reduce the rate of suicides in that margin.
Hopkins made the six-and-a-half-hour drive back to Gillette yesterday specifically to see her family on Memorial Day and, when asked about the weight that the holiday holds in her family, the crowded table joined in with their own stories as Hopkins paused, overcome by the emotional significance of the day.
Fighting back tears, she said simply, “It’s an honor to commemorate the incredible sacrifices that they’ve made for our country.”
Later Monday morning, the current Commander of the American Legion Arnie Johnson hosted a memorial service to do just that.
Around 100 people gathered at the top of the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery to pay tribute. Though the ceremony received more spectators than either event before it, the space remained steadily silent. Rather than words, friends and families communicated through bowed heads and hands placed gently on one another’s shoulders.
It was so tranquil, one onlooker noted, in fact, that when Johnson announced the moment of silence, even the breeze seemed to slow so the air was still.
The service began with a Wreath Laying Ceremony, in which a member of the Auxiliary Post read “In Flander’s Fields,” a 1915 poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae before she laid the wreath.
A distance away from the audience, stood eight men. Together, they held rifles to perform the 21 Gun Salute while the last man wielded a bugle. Minutes after the wreath-laying, Johnson turned the crowd’s attention toward the group as 21 shots echoed in the still air.
The crowd looked down in silence as the lilting melody of a lone bugle hung in the tranquil sky, the winds suddenly dying down as if in reverence to those hundreds of soldiers buried under white crosses on the hills above.