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Hundreds of volunteers honor and remember the lives of 8,500 veterans at Westlawn-Hillcrest Cemetery

Posted at 7:12 PM, May 30, 2023

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Roughly 20,000 people made their way through Westlawn-Hillcrest Cemetery over Memorial Day weekend.

Remembering those we have lost and taking in the stars and stripes covering the grounds.

“When you come through the cemetery over the next week and see all the flags out there — it’s as beautiful as any national cemetery in the country,” Navy Veteran Carl Diamond said.

“It’s just a moment of awe. You just really can’t put it into words,” Marine Veteran Matt Diggle added. “Just that deep sense of gratefulness.”

It’s all part of the Memorial Day Flag Project, started by Diamond and Centennial Lodge #326 back in 2009.

“The first year we had about ten people walk the whole cemetery looking for veterans, and it took us a week to put out about 1,700 flags,” Diamond recalls.

That’s far from the operation today.

In the project’s 15th year, more than 250 volunteers came out to assist in placing around 8,500 flags on veteran gravesites last Wednesday. Finishing in a record time of two-and-a-half hours.

“Not in a million years would we have thought this,” Diamond said of the growth. “This has been fantastic.”

“It’s truly emotional. There’s a lot of pride, a lot of honor, and a lot of respect,” said Volunteer Cindy Mason with Hillcrest Health Services. The organization partners with Centennial Lodge #326 for the project.

Work goes into it year-round for Diamond and the lodge, as the list of flags continues to grow each year.

“We search the obituaries, we get deaths from the funeral home, we search, find a grave — so we add somewhere between 200, 300 names every year,” he said.

Westlawn-Hillcrest Cemetery purchases and stores all the flags that mark the gravesites of the veterans. The same flag they all made sacrifices to protect.

“It was a no-brainer when we started and it’s a no-brainer today,” Westlawn-Hillcrest Family Services Manager Dixie Davis Jr. said. “All waving at the same time — it’s a beautiful sight.”

“You always want that for somebody, and hopefully it’s something we can send down to generations — the importance of what we do here,” Mason said.

Diggle believes it will continue to carry over.

“I think that’s the best part about it. Just knowing that I’m not the last and this will go on forever.”

He leads the employee resource group for veterans and first responders at NFM. Diggle says the sign-up list consisting of 50 volunteers fills up fast every year.

“We have well over 100 staff (at NFM) who have served in the military or are currently serving, so it just means a lot to our staff to be able to come out and participate.”

Several of the volunteers 3 News Now Anchor Zach Williamson spoke with have family members themselves who served and are buried at the cemetery, bringing it even closer to home.

However, it’s the veterans buried here who don’t have family in the area or have since passed, that may be the greatest motivation.

“These veterans deserve to be recognized,” Mason said. “So many times, they’re lost and left behind, so being able to partner with them to show the respect they deserve is really very meaningful.”

“The why is very simple,” Diamond turned and pointed to the words on the back of his shirt. “A veteran never dies until they’re forgotten. So, we’re trying to remember all these veterans.

Remembrance and gratitude. It’s what Memorial Day is truly all about.

“It’s important to take that time to step back and reflect about all those who have served. Those who have really given up some of their own freedoms to help protect the ones that we have,” Diggle said.

Diamond and his wife stayed out at the cemetery Thursday through Memorial Day to answer questions, help families locate graves, and to add any veterans' names to the list they may have missed.

The flags will remain at the graves of our fallen heroes until Sunday, June 4.

They are asking for more volunteers to help pick up, roll, and store the flags for next year. Those efforts will start Sunday at noon.

They are also accepting free-will donations. The money raised goes to the Masonic Veterans Partnership – which purchases vans to help transport disabled veterans to VA hospitals. You can learn more about it by clicking here.

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