Scattered across the rolling Jackson County countryside, hand-sized American flags flutter in the breeze.
If not for those flags, a number of men who fought for their country — some who made the ultimate sacrifice — would have been forgotten decades ago.
Ed McDermott and Larry Ambrosy vowed not to let that happen. The two men take weeks out of the year to place those hand-sized flags on the graves of veterans buried in Jackson County’s pioneer cemeteries.
“We were both in the service,” McDermott said. “I think that’s part of the reason we’re so passionate about it.”
Both men also volunteer with the Jackson County Pioneer Cemetery Commission, which restores and maintains the old, often neglected, cemeteries in the county.
Many of the county’s pioneer cemeteries formed between the 1840s and 1860s, Ambrosy said. Cemeteries maintain their pioneer status if 13 or fewer people were buried there in the last 50 years.
Veterans are buried in 13 of the 22 cemeteries the commission has restored, Ambrosy said.
War of 1812: 4 burials
Black Hawk War (1832): 2 burials
Mexican War (1846-48): 1 burial
Civil War (1861-65): 52 burials (22 are in the Cottonville Cemetery)
World War II (1941-45): 1 burial. That burial came just last year at Reed Cemetery near Spragueville, when a husband and wife were interred in the cemetery founded by the wife’s ancestors more than 100 years earlier.
In recent years, the commission installed flag poles at all pioneer cemeteries where military veterans are buried.
“As you drive around and see those flag poles that seem to stick out of the trees around the county, now you know veterans are buried there,” Ambrosy said.
“It’s one more way we say thanks,” McDermott said.
Sometimes commissioners restore the old, crumbling grave markers in the cemeteries. At other times, the veteran exists only as a name on a burial list.
At Tilton Cemetery north of Maquoketa, veterans from the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War are buried in what evolved into a farm field. Commissioners began restoration efforts there and found part of a unique medallion that would have marked a War of 1812 veteran.
“We knew he was buried there but we never found a stone,” Ambrosy said.
That’s where McDermott comes in again. If a veteran has no grave marker, he orders a free one through the Veterans Affairs office.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of documentation you have to provide simply to prove the veteran existed,” McDermott said.
But like the flags and flagpoles and cemetery restoration, the work is worth it for the veterans.
“It’s just respect for them,” Ambrosy said, praising the many area American Legion, VFW and volunteer groups that place flags at the other cemeteries in the county.
“We’re just a couple of old veterans who want to make sure that veterans in the off-road cemeteries get the same respect and consideration as the other cemeteries,” McDermott said. “If it doesn’t get done now, we don’t know who will carry it on in the future.
“We want them to be remembered.”