On Aug. 16, a very special ceremony took place at Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium, the nation's only such World War I cemetery. The event served as the culmination of a campaign to pair citizens with the graves of U.S. war dead who are far away indeed from their homes and families. And a big part of the campaign was played by American Legion Flanders Field Post BE02.
More than 400 adopters, family members and friends were part of the ceremony. U.S. Ambassador Denise Bauer spoke and presented the mayor of nearby Waregem with his Certificate of Adoption. Each of the 368 graves, and 43 names from the Wall of Missing, now has a volunteer who has agreed to keep the grave tended and place flags for Memorial Day and Remembrance (Veterans) Day. Adopters received a certificate and challenge coin.
"Last October, the superintendent of the cemetery, Chris Arseneault (a Legion member), asked me if The American Legion could implement an adoption program for the graves of World War I American soldiers," Post BE02 Commander Joseph Schram said. "He stated that the other two American cemeteries (Ardennes American Cemetery and Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery) already had adoption programs but Flanders Field did not. With the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I in 2014, we decided to wait for August to conduct the adoption ceremony."
The program kicked off in April, after a visit to the cemetery by President Barack Obama. Schram said that more than 100 applications came in in the first week, and all the graves had a volunteer by the first week of August. There's even a waiting list. Many adopters are from the area, especially from Waregem. But others are from the Netherlands, Germany and even the United States. Their ages range from the teens to 80s.
"We are forming bonds between Americans and Belgians," Schram said. "Many of the adopters have already reached out to the families and communities where these soldiers originated. Newspaper articles have already been written in New Jersey and Ohio. One of the adopters is in contact with a post that is named after one of the soldiers at the cemetery. Our hope is to have many of the families (next of kin) come to the annual Memorial Day ceremonies and meet the adopters of their family members.
"Adoption programs don’t have to be just for American cemeteries located on foreign soil. There are many war cemeteries located in the United States. I visited the cemetery two days after the ceremony, and the beauty of all the flower arrangements next to each grave was very endearing. We will continue to manage the program, and hopefully each year we will conduct an adopter appreciation event and continue to give out certificates."
Management of the successful adoption program is another symbol of the rebirth of Post BE02. "The post was first organized in 1933 but until last year was dormant for 15 years," Schram said. "I was asked to re-establish the post in January 2013, and within a year we had over 50 new members. During that year, we established a chapter of the Legion Riders and invigorated the Sons of the American Legion. We also participated in numerous ceremonies around the country, as well as the Memorial Dayand Veterans Day ceremonies at the American cemeteries. As our membership keeps increasing, so will the programs we conduct."
The American Forces Europe website has a related story on graves in Belgium - click here to view it.