Planting flags in a field of honor

The Vietnam veteran organizes volunteers to hold memorial services for this war's dead.

Published May 27, 2007

TAMPA - Between the displays of World War II torpedoes, old tank guns and the brick walkways bearing names of fallen Vietnam veterans, Dave Braun is planting something new.

Braun still wears the reminders of his days in combat: a U.S. Army baseball cap with a Vietnam Veteran patch on the brim, a silver bracelet honoring his cousin who is missing in action and a tattoo honoring Joyce, who became his wife two weeks before a 1968 deployment.

But Braun, 63, tends a garden of American flags on a war-injured foot and torn rotator cuff so that a new generation of fallen veterans can be remembered.

"Never again will one generation of soldiers leave another behind, " he said, repeating a Vietnam Veterans motto that recalls how he felt stereotyped and mistreated by other veterans during the 1970s.

So Braun, who lives in Brandon and is president of the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County, and his friend John Lynch, owner of Flags Unlimited Inc., launched Operation Field of Honor on Sept. 11, 2005.

The idea was simple: one small flag for every man and woman lost in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Every few months, he holds a ceremony to read the names, one by one, as local junior ROTC students help plant new flags.

The 2, 700 flags that Braun placed 15 inches apart at Riverview's Serenity Meadows Memorial Park in 2005 now number around 3, 600. They are placed 6 inches apart in a bed of pine bark at Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301 North.

It would take too long to read the names one at a time now, Braun said. At the April 7 ceremony, Braun and the volunteers put down 233 flags, the most in one ceremony since Operation Field of Honor began. The July 7 ceremony looks grim, too: Braun and his volunteers will plant at least 63 flags.

The area can be extended to fit more flags, and Braun sees that coming.

"We could, in fact, go on to add several more thousand flags, " he said. "We will be doing this until the war is over."

But the memorial, which Braun and Lynch believe is the only one of its kind in Florida, isn't meant to make a pro- or anti-war statement, just a visual reminder of veterans' sacrifices.

Maybe it's Lee Greenwood's version of God Bless America coming from the CD player or the bugle call or the chaplain's prayer or the way the flags look under a spotlight at night. Braun isn't sure why, but he gets emotional at every ceremony, said his wife, Joyce.

"It's a solemn time. You are participating in the meaning of something and thinking about what it was supposed to do, " he said.

But it's the more than 100 guests at each ceremony who give the memorial its meaning, Braun said. On Memorial Day, he'll have a special ceremony with tents and hot dogs and live music instead of the usual CDs. The Junior ROTC members will be there, like they are at all of his ceremonies.

This time, they'll read the names of women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq because Braun likes every Memorial Day service to have a special theme.

He also likes the roughly 3, 600 flags to look their best. He goes to the memorial once a week, ignoring the sling on his shoulder and the limp in his step, to stoop and replace the faded and tattered flags. Each one must look new and proud, he said. Each one is there for a reason.

"This is what patriotism is, " he said.

Amanda Palleschi can be reached at apalleschi@sptimes.com or 813 661-2456.

Fast Facts:

If you go

What: Memorial Day Ceremony at Veterans Memorial Museum & Park.

When: 11 a.m. today.

Where: Veterans Memorial Museum & Park, 3602 N Highway 301, Tampa.

Details: Singer Charles Haugabrooks will perform patriotic selections. Keynote address by Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Diamond. Tented seating. Free hot dogs, cake and lemonade.