U.S. government should help families decorate veterans' graves overseas

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

Veterans Day is around the corner. For John and Bob, the day will be for remembering the men and women who serve in the United States military—and two service members, in particular. 

For John, it will be his son, Robert, a Marine lieutenant who will forever be 29 years old. For Bob, it will be his father, Karl, forever the face on treasured family photographs of a handsome 26-year-old Army captain.

John and Bob are patriots through and through. They are not big-government fanatics. They have something else in common, too. They both believe the American people should never forget the ultimate sacrifice paid by members of the U.S. military, and that is a reason they are disappointed with a decision made by the government they love.

They believe the federal government has made a terrible, insensitive mistake by walking away from a pledge to the families of our war dead after World War II—to make it convenient for Gold Star families to remember their 234,000 loved ones who are interred or commemorated in 26 military cemeteries and memorials in more than a dozen foreign countries. 

In the years after World War II—until 2015, that is—the families of those Americans could mail a check to a government office in Washington, D.C., to pay for flowers that would be placed at the graves of veterans like Bob Holliday’s father.

Karl Holliday, a farm kid from Wayne County, was killed by German gunfire in April 1945 during the closing weeks of the war in Europe. Bob was 19 months old, too young to have memories of his father. There was no grave to visit in Iowa, because his father was buried with 8,000 other men at the American cemetery outside Margraten, Netherlands.

Now 80 years old, Bob Holliday has brought a bulldog’s tenacity to his quest to get the federal government to reinstate the discontinued floral program. He has led a contingent of people from across the nation who lost a parent in World War II. They have enlisted former military leaders to help—people like retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, whom you may remember as the secretary of Homeland Security and White House chief of staff under President Trump.

Kelly has a special bond with people like Bob Holliday. Kelly’s youngest son, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in November 2010 when he stepped on a hidden explosive while leading a Marine patrol.

The chaos of World War II did not allow Karl Holliday’s body to be returned to the United States for burial near the family farm outside of Promise City. The body of Robert Kelly was brought back to the United States and now rests at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the months after his son’s death, Kelly told an audience, “Gold Star families are special, to say the least. They don’t ask for much.”

But in a federal budget that totals $6 trillion (with a T), it was too expensive and too inconvenient for the government to handle the flower purchases families wanted to make for those resting in burial grounds in places like the Netherlands or above the D-Day beaches in France.

Three times a year for 40 years, Holliday bought flowers through the program for his father’s grave. That ended when officials at the American Battle Monuments Commission, the government agency that tends these military cemeteries, decided the flower program had become a burden. It was taking too much employee time. 

Besides, most buyers wanted to pay by credit card, and the agency said it is not set up to accept credit cards—even though every facet of American life, from income taxes to parking meters, can be paid by credit card now.

The government’s decision angers Holliday, a recently retired West Des Moines lawyer—just as it angers General Kelly.

“Those people buried in those cemeteries, most in their 20s, they died for us and they died for our government,” Holliday told a reporter. “Don’t walk away from that.”

With a jab at the supposed staff burden the flower program created, Holliday added, “You know how many manhours I’ve spent thinking about my dad and what he could have been like? Don’t talk to me about manhours.”

Kelly’s feelings are as strong, though more diplomatic.

In a recent column in the Boston Globe, he discussed the floral program and the American Battle Monuments Commission: “The Gold Star families, friends, and next generations growing up here, an ocean away from their loved ones overseas, deserve that support. It’s efficient and the right thing to do. Plus, it’s their job.”

John J. Pershing, the most famous American general during World War I, once said of the war dead who fill our overseas cemeteries, “Time will not dim the story of their deeds.” 

But time appears to have dimmed the willingness of government officials to bear a bit of inconvenience to get flowers from families of the loved ones beneath those white grave markers.

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