Northern Wyoming News - Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

By Karla Pomeroy
Staff Writer 

Memorial Day: Working behind the scenes to honor veterans


May 28, 2016

Karla Pomeroy

VFW members Carl Turnbaugh and Tom Young put a flag at a veteran's headstone at Riverside Cemetery in Thermopolis Thursday. The VFW has been placing flags for decades.

THERMOPOLIS - Every year on Memorial Day you'll see veterans' headstones in cemeteries adorned with flags. Who ensures those flags are there? Well in Thermopolis, for at least 50 years the Thermopolis Veterans of Foreign Wars have been honoring all deceased veterans by placing flags at the headstones of each veteran buried at either Riverside Cemetery or Monument Hill Cemetery.

Whether it's two volunteers or the dozen who showed up Thursday afternoon this year, one thing has remained constant over the past few decades - VFW member Carl Turnbaugh is always there.

Most of the volunteers Thursday have been longtime VFW members but only been helping put out flags for the past few years, some do to scheduling, some because they were past members in other communities and only recently moved to Thermopolis.

Turnbaugh currently organizes the veterans flag project for the VFW. He humbly declines to take credit for the project. He gives credit to Pete Cavalli who was in charge before he took over.

He said he doesn't know exactly how long the Thermopolis VFW has been putting out flags by the headstones, but it's been more than 45 years. He said Cavalli showed him how to do it. Cavalli has been putting out flags for at least 45 years, Turnbaugh, himself, nearly that long as well.

He added that different organizations have been putting out flags before the VFW took over the project.

Making Maps

"Pete showed me how to do it," Turnbaugh said. And then Turnbaugh, found a better way, or at least a more organized way.

He said in the past they used to just walk the rows at the cemeteries looking for the veterans' headstones to place the flags.

In the 1970s, partly to make it easier for them at the time, and partly to plan for future generations, he developed a list and a map. He has been a longtime member of the VFW and served in the Navy from 1959-1964. He joined the VFW because "When you're in the military you look forward to joining one day. But, like other clubs we've been dropping in membership," Turnbaugh said, adding he's concerned about the viability of the organization as members get older.

To ensure it will be easier for people to take over the project in the future, Turnbaugh started writing down all the names of the veterans on the headstones where they put flags and began mapping them out per the sections in the cemeteries. While each cemetery has some designated veteran areas, veterans are buried throughout both cemeteries, he noted.

His daughter Carla Cable said she has been helping her father since she was a young child. She said back then, and still today, her father looks at the obituaries, adds more names to his list and his map each year for the next Memorial Day.

Turnbaugh said occasionally he misses a veteran and someone will call and he's happy to add them to the list.

"It's a way of honoring our fallen comrades. It's something nice to do," he said.

On Thursday, Turnbaugh, and about a dozen VFW volunteers were busy putting out flags at both cemeteries in preparation for the Memorial Day weekend and Memorial Day services Monday.

Fellow VFW member Tom Young, who has been helping the past few years, said some years it's just been a few volunteers putting out the flags.

This year, Turnbaugh said, "We had a good turnout." All the VFW members volunteering Thursday said they were helping because the help was needed and because "we want to honor our veterans."

VFW Commander Dan Dombeck said the flag project is "very important because it's in memory of the people who have their life for our country."

He said there are about 400 veterans they place flags on at Riverside Cemetery and they are nearing 500 at Monument Hill. It takes the better part of the afternoon to complete both, depending on the number of volunteers.

Volunteer Rita Evans said Turnbaugh is passionate about the flags and is conscientious not wanting anyone on his lists to be missed. She noted Turnbaugh will go by to make sure no veteran's headstone was missed after they finish at both cemeteries.

Most of the volunteers needed Turnbaugh's maps Thursday to find the headstones and place the flags, some even having to backtrack knowing they missed a veteran along the way since the name wasn't checked off their list.

Turnbaugh, however, seemed to easily go from headstone to headstone in his section from memory after years of placing flags. He would stop at times to share a story or two he may have about the veteran who was buried there.

The flags will fly throughout next week and Turnbaugh, and however many volunteers show up, will remove the flags next Sunday to be stored for use in 2017.

Cable said the VFW reuses as many flags as possible, noting her father will restaple some to their small wooden pole if needed.


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