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BROWNSVILLE — Volunteers Debra Perez and her 7-year-old daughter Olivia followed closely behind David Parsons, Genealogy Research and Membership Coordinator for the Brownsville Historical Association, as they trekked Saturday morning through the Old City Cemetery with their bundle of American flags.
The mother and daughter team were just one of several volunteers searching through the historic cemetery as part of an annual event organized by Parsons to place American flags by the gravesides of veterans ahead of Memorial Day on May 29.
Memorial Day, first widely observed following the Civil War, is a national holiday to honor and remember fallen veterans.
Finding the correct grave can be a trial for newcomers in the winding rows of a cemetery that, while now closed to new burials, contains around 27,000 interments — with roughly 5,000 with identifiable headstones — of which volunteers must find the 400-plus flag locations for the veterans buried there.
Each veteran grave has a small PVC pipe with a blue tip on it. Every holder has a corresponding American flag tagged with a name and lot number to make finding the grave easier for volunteers.
However, a recurring problem often happens with these holders in that people either repurpose them to hold flowers or, as Parsons recently found after Veterans Day, take the holders and flags out entirely. While Parsons has experience navigating the cemetery layout to find each veteran’s site, this can make it difficult for his volunteers.
Over the years, he has worked to identify and mark the veterans buried in the cemetery using a system of rows and blocks across the grounds for his volunteers to locate their charges. However, adding to the difficulty, roughly 50 veterans do not have headstones at all.
Others, like those buried in Potter’s Field, an area for the indigent and unclaimed burials, remain a mystery as to their exact location.
“The majority of them would be in Potter’s Field, but there is an issue where records got lost after 1950. So anyone buried here after 1950, if there is no headstone, we do not know where those burials are. For those people, and the veterans, we are taking a section — and putting the veterans together — so we have a headstone to memorialize them even if it may not be in the right place,” Parsons said.
Perez and her daughter came to the event because she wanted Olivia to become involved in community events and start her journey in community service as a Juliette pair with her mother within the Girl Scouts of the USA. As they volunteered, Perez says she was surprised at the range of veterans in the cemetery.
“I see that there’s a lot of history here. I didn’t know how many veterans are here in this cemetery,” Perez said.
For visitors to the cemetery, the flags will be up at the gravesides until just after Memorial Day.
“It is set up for Memorial Day to show some respect for the veterans and to show people how many veterans we have here,” Parsons said.