Boston's Memorial Day flag garden idea spreads across the US

BOSTON — The solemn display of tens of thousands of U.S. flags that first appeared on Boston Common for Memorial Day a decade ago, honoring service members who have died defending the nation, is slowly becoming a national movement.

The flag gardens, as they are known, can be seen this weekend in Texas, Louisiana, Ohio and New York, all started by local residents inspired by the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund tribute started in 2010.

"We are extraordinarily proud that what we intended to do for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been brought to a scale that we never fully anticipated," said Tom Crohan, president of the nonprofit's board of directors.

The concept has even spread to Canada, where thousands of Canadian flags are planted in Toronto on Remembrance Day in November, when Canada honors its military members who have died in the line of duty.

The Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund was founded in 2009 to support to the families of active duty service members killed since 9/11.

The first sea of fluttering stars and stripes included 20,000 flags, one for every Massachusetts resident who gave their life in war since World War I. This year, more than 37,000 flags honoring those who have died dating to the Revolutionary War have been planted.

What makes the stirring display so special is that it's so unexpected. Most people who see it are just walking across the Common for another reason, Crohan said.

"It's almost impossible to walk past that site without stopping," Crohan said.

That's what happened with Chuck Schneider, executive pastor of Sagemont Church in Houston. Schneider and his wife were on vacation in Boston three years ago and on the way to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game when they saw the flag garden.

"I was so moved that I immediately thought I'd like to do the same thing in Texas," he said.

With the help of hundreds of volunteers from the church's congregation, 38,000 flags are planted on church grounds, each one representing a Texan who died in service dating to the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

Janet Broussard, a member of the Blue Star Mothers of Louisiana, was inspired by pictures of Boston's tribute. For five years now, the organization has planted 11,000 flags on Statehouse grounds in Baton Rouge.

Karen Carmen, community services director for the city of Beachwood near Cleveland, saw an article about the Boston display in her local newspaper. Since 2012, the city has been painting a 30-foot-by 60-foot U.S. flag on city property and decorating it with hundreds of smaller flags.

Like Crohan, they say they get the greatest satisfaction from visitors' reactions.

"The thing that I love is when you see families solemnly and slowly walk by, probably thinking of a special loved one," Carmen said.

Broussard's favorite moment was the time a little girl of about 4 whose father had died in Iraq visited the Baton Rouge flag garden.

"She asked 'Which one is my Daddy's?' That just made it all worthwhile," Broussard said.