David Parsons, of the Brownsville Historical Association, directs volunteers as they help place American flags on the graves of veterans Saturday morning as part of an annual flag placement for Memorial Day at Brownsville’s Old City Cemetery.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

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The sun is still slowly climbing into the sky a little after 7 a.m. as voices ring through the headstones Saturday in Brownsville’s Old City Cemetery.

With bundles of American flags in hand, volunteers, many from local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, hunt through the rows of graves, stopping to check names.

On the left side of the cemetery near the entrance, Jose Maya and his two grandchildren, Desmond Troy and Avah Garcia, place a flag in a small flag holder at the grave of deceased veteran Arthur John Dear, buried in 1892.

Avah puts a penny on top of the headstone, and the group stops for a moment. They raise their hands to salute the grave before moving on.

The volunteers are there as part of an annual project by David Parsons, Genealogy Research and Membership Coordinator for the Brownsville Historical Association, to place flags at the graves of veterans ahead of Memorial Day.

Parsons and a trio of volunteers walk through the cemetery the Saturday before the holiday to put out around 430 flags in the flag holders Parsons has installed.

For Maya, a U.S. Army veteran with over 20 years of service, the event is a way to instill respect in his grandchildren for those that died in service.

“To pay tribute to those who have given to our country. Some gave all, and others gave some. This is a great way to show our communities and our young kids that you are supposed to show support and respect to those that have given us this kind of freedom,” he said.

The work goes quickly. After an hour, just 20 of the flags remained after volunteers couldn’t find the grave.

Finding the correct grave can be a trial in the old cemetery that, while no longer in service, boasts nearly 27,000 burials, of which around 450 to 460 are known to be veterans.

It’s been a labor of love for Parsons to identify and mark the veterans buried in the cemetery. While some have been easier than others, for example, those buried in Potter’s Field, an area for the indigent and unclaimed burials are nearly impossible to pinpoint.

“A number of them still don’t have headstones and don’t have burial locations,” Parsons said.

Working with Blas Loya—who has a project to identify and obtain headstones for South Texas Civil War veterans—they’ve been able to add more than 20 headstones in the past two years that were missing from the cemetery.

When the grave location is unknown, Parsons has tried to group the headstones together in open spaces to give people a place come and pay their respects.

Commissioner for District 1 Nurith Galonsky has come to the event for the last four years and helps spread the word on social media to get volunteers out to help. For Galonsky, it is a great way to experience part of Brownsville you otherwise might not see and a moment of fellowship ahead of the official observance for Memorial Day.

“It’s nice to see all these people starting their day early by paying homage to those who’ve served because Memorial Day is about those who have died while serving,” she said.

Parsons still has a bit of work left before Memorial Day to finish placing flags at the hard-to-find graves and replacing any flag holders that may have gone missing. He hopes that the American flags will serve as a beacon for anyone wanting to pay their respects on the day.

“Hopefully, people can come down and look and see all the veterans here in the cemetery,” he said.

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