Rob McKenna has visited national cemeteries in New Mexico, Oregon and Virginia, but Fort Snelling National Cemetery holds special significance for him.

The Navy veteran has placed American flags at the cemetery for Memorial Day since 2015, the first year the nonprofit Flags for Fort Snelling brought back the tradition to honor armed forces members past and present. He draws comparisons between the curved grounds of the cemetery and the rolling Flint Hills region of Kansas where he was raised.

“The layout for me is appealing because it reminds me of home,” McKenna, 41, said from the cemetery Saturday morning. “It’s like going back to high school.”

This Memorial Day is even more special for him. For the first time in 35 years, Flags for Fort Snelling is placing a flag on every single headstone at the cemetery — a total of more than 175,000.

The majority were planted Saturday morning by about 5,000 volunteers, according to organizers. More than $225,000 was donated to buy the flags; the group received support from the Mall of America, KARE 11 and other partners.

The scale of the undertaking has yet to hit McKenna, but its significance was starkly clear.

“It’s not the number, it’s the connection to each individual person,” he said, fighting back tears. “They gave everything.”

It’s not difficult to find a Minnesotan with a personal connection to Fort Snelling. More than 225,000 people are interred at the sprawling national cemetery, which is situated between the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

“That’s Minnesota’s history. Our roots are laid to rest there,” said Rocky Borchardt, 37, co-founder of Flags for Fort Snelling.

Decades ago, U.S. flags used to be planted on each headstone. But as the cemetery rapidly grew, the practice was halted. Four years ago, it was brought back on a smaller scale when Borchardt and a crew of volunteers placed 2,700 miniature flags at the cemetery.

McKenna was the group’s first “runner” back then, moving across the 436-acre cemetery and planting flags on grave sites upon request by relatives.

On Saturday, he coordinated more than 160 flag runners tasked with fulfilling nearly 1,230 requests from dozens of states. A picture of each site was sent to relatives via e-mail.

“It’s amazing to be able to do this every year,” he said. “It means something to a lot of people.”

‘A good thing to do’

Hundreds of volunteers — families, Boy Scout troops, veterans — showed up at the northern entrance to the Mall of America, many before the sun had risen. They were then shuttled and bused in waves to different sections of the cemetery, each one handed a bundle of flags attached to wooden sticks.

The rising sun illuminated the grass and the faces of volunteers as the morning continued, a wispy breeze occasionally passing through the hills. They moved along the rows and, using more than a little arm strength, placed the flags into the grass at each grave.

Kim Flanegan and her daughter Breanna of Hampton, Minn., decided to volunteer after learning about the event on Facebook. Her father-in-law’s cremains are interred at the cemetery, and her son Westley is currently a U.S. Marine in North Carolina.

“We just thought it would be a good thing to do,” said Flanegan, wearing a hat with a sequined American flag.

After planting their flags, the two walked down Pruden Drive toward the columbarium, where the urns are stored. They walked up and down the rows of Columbarium 1, looking for their last name.

Breanna found the headstone and called out to her mom. It read, “FLANEGAN EDWARD M,” and listed on it were “WWII” and “KO” — short for the Korean War — the two wars he served in. A flag stood in front, planted there upon request from the family. He died in 2011.

Breanna, 22, remembered her grandfather as stern, yet not without a sense of humor. “He was really good at making us laugh,” she said. “Sometimes he would play with his dentures — make them fall out.

“He also really loved cats,” she added. “He would just play with them. Just stroke their little backs.”

As a military family member, Kim finds that holidays such as Memorial Day and July 4th bring pride, along with a feeling of melancholy.

“It makes you miss the people that you don’t see every day,” she said.

By 9 a.m., most of the plots were dotted with flags. Families began arriving at the cemetery to pay their respects to relatives as the temperature climbed toward 90 degrees.

Some families of veterans are expected to plant flags Sunday morning, Borchardt said. A remaining 15,000 flags will be placed on Memorial Day.

Although marshaling so many volunteers was at times hectic, Borchardt said organizers hope the support they received will allow them to plant flags for many more Memorial Days to come.

“I’m really, really optimistic that this is going to be rooted in Minnesota for forever,” she said.

 

miguel.otarola@startribune.com 612-673-4753