"Hey, this looks like a veteran!" Aging soldiers and schoolkids team up to honor Hartford's war dead
If you’ve admired the 800 American flags waving at the graves of veterans in Hartford’s cemeteries, you have three generations to thank.
Denis Backus, president of the Hartford Veterans Council, stands by some of the flags he and others planted at the West Hartford Cemetery.
A small group of aging veterans led by Denis Backus and Dan Reed Sr. is leading the flag distribution effort. But their hard work has many hands, thanks to the educators and students at Dothan Brook, Ottauquechee and Hartford Middle schools who pitched in this spring.
“We’ve only got a handful of people doing it — and 800 flags is a lot of flags to get out before Memorial Day,” said Backus, who along with Reed leads the Hartford Veteran Council. The students helped get the job done — and learned something in the process.
“It shows them why they should honor the veterans and it gives them, I guess you’d say, the idea of helping honor them in their way,” Backus tells me as we stand among the flags waving in the August air at West Hartford Cemetery.
Backus grew up in Waitsfield and was drafted into the Army at age 19. He endured plenty of combat, serving as an assistant gunner and firing a Howitzer cannon from 1968-69. Now living in Sharon and retired from his job as a long-distance trucker, he carries scars both physical and emotional.
Exposure to Agent Orange caused him a raft of physical ailments, the gunfire damaged his hearing and he — like so many veterans — suffered post-traumatic stress. And then there are the memories.
“You always look back and you’ve always lost a lot of friends … close friends,” he says.
The graves include those of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War
The veterans honored by the Hartford flag effort span the range of American warfare, from the Revolution to the modern conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The flag-planters leave half-inch plastic tubes at the gravesites to hold the flags each spring, and ask visitors to leave them in place once the flags have been removed in November.
While they have identified most veterans’ graves, Backus said they invite family members who think a relative’s grave has been overlooked to alert them.
And students sometimes make discoveries, pushing aside vegetation and brushing away dirt to find the resting places of forgotten warriors.
“They have found some that we didn’t even know,” Backus says. “They say, ‘Hey, this looks like a veteran.’ “
For more information, contact Denis Backus or Dan Reed Sr. at 603-276-9202 or 802-291-1270.
The Fruit Stand Cemetery in West Hartford includes graves dating to Revolutionary War times.