Flags honor veterans

Volunteers rise early to line parade route with flags

Early Sunday morning, just as the sky over Mirror Pond began to blush with pink, 16 men and women gathered quietly at the bridge on Northwest Newport Avenue to carry out what has become a local Veterans Day tradition.

On seven patriotic holidays per year, plus anytime a local soldier is killed in action, volunteers post American flags along the streets of downtown Bend.

For some Central Oregonians, a happenstance glimpse of these flags is their only reminder that it’s Memorial Day, Veterans Day or the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Not for these volunteers.

Their morning began at 6:45, with little fanfare. There was no music, just the honking of nearby geese. Dick Tobiason, a retired Army pilot who flew two tours in Vietnam, read part of Barack Obama’s 2012 Veterans Day Presidential Proclamation. He and two other volunteers then read “The Veteran,” a new poem by Tumalo cowboy poet Ted Lyster.

“We’re here to continue a long legacy of honoring our veterans,” Tobiason told the group.

There are 24 million veterans in the United States, including about 15,000 in Deschutes County. That means one in 10 county residents has served in the military.

At 6:59 a.m., with the temperature hovering in the low 20s, people were ready to get moving. A truck with stacks of rolled-up flags idled nearby.

Jim Wilkens unfurled and planted the first flag on the south side of Newport Bridge. It bore the name of his son, Air Force First Lt. Justin Wilkens, who died February in a plane crash in the tiny African nation of Djibouti. The 26-year-old was deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the most recent soldier from Bend to die in the line of duty.

The group worked quickly and quietly. By 7:15 a.m., 200 flags stretched from the Bend Veterans Peace Memorial east across the Newport Avenue bridge, then south along Wall Street to Franklin Avenue. Less than four hours later, the Veterans Day Parade would roll along this route.

The volunteers scattered, but not before making plans to reconvene at 4:30 p.m., to put the flags away.

If you walked along the parade route and looked carefully at each flag, you’d see lettering stitched on the side closest to the pole of each one.

The first six flags contain the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. The next five bear the names of soldiers from Bend who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. The next nine contain the names of soldiers killed or wounded in the unit of Marine Lance Cpl. Randy Newman, who died in August 2006, Bend’s first casualty of these wars.

Then there are flags to memorialize other Central Oregonians who died in the most recent conflicts. And then flags commemorating local veterans of previous wars.

A gold star stitched next to a name indicates the person died in action. A purple heart indicates he or she was wounded in action.

“Every one of these names has a story,” Tobiason said.

So do each of the volunteers, not all of whom are veterans. Tom Hignell, for example, is a retired physician who showed up Sunday morning to honor those who have served, particularly those who died in action.

“I think of it as personal: My family is protected because of what they’ve done,” he said. “What can you do to pay somebody back who has died for you? You can’t.”

Rina Dean brought her three young children, ages 7, 5 and 4. They’d always attended the parade, Dean said, but this was the first year they decided to help line the route with flags.

She’d never noticed before that each flag bears a fallen soldier’s name.

“We are just very, very appreciative for all that the veterans have done for us,” she said. “I brought my kids because I want to really teach them where our freedom comes from.”

Eight years ago, Tobiason approached the Bend City Council for permission to reinstate this simple tradition. Twenty years earlier, he said, the city decked itself in flags for all patriotic holidays, but the practice had somehow been lost.

Once he got the official go-ahead, other community members pitched in. Boy Scouts drilled holes in the sidewalk pavers to support the flagpoles. Secure Storage donated space to store the flags when not in use. Lumber companies donated wood for flagpoles. And the list goes on.

Tobiason and other volunteers take care to single out veterans who died in the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The youngest ones are the ones we have the most identity with,” Tobiason said. “We hope we don’t lose anymore. We’ve already lost too many.”