One Twin Cities-area credit union’s attempt to honor veterans grew into a nationwide push to restore the practice of placing flags at a large national cemetery.

Richfield-Bloomington Credit Union is located just a five-minute drive from Fort Snelling National Cemetery, a 436-acre burial site with more than 200,000 graves. For years the gravesites there were topped with American flags each Memorial Day, until that tradition stopped approximately 35 years ago, according to RBCU VP of Marketing Todd Barudson. With the credit union’s help, however, each headstone in the cemetery donned a flag this Memorial Day – and the program was so popular it will likely be repeated.

Barduson told Credit Union Journal that years ago he heard about the full cemetery no longer donning flags on Memorial Day and hoped he could one day find a way to help bring that tradition back. When he began working at RBCU in 2017, he said, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

An unnamed soldier kneels before a headstone at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Richfield-Bloomington CU spearheaded an effort to restore the practice of placing flags on all 200,000 headstones there for Memorial Day 2018.
An unnamed soldier kneels before a headstone at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Richfield-Bloomington CU spearheaded an effort to restore the practice of placing flags on all 200,000 headstones there for Memorial Day 2018. Photo courtesy of RBCU/Flags for Fort Snelling

“There couldn’t be a cause, to me, that is geographically more perfect for Richfield-Bloomington Credit Union to be behind,” Barduson said, noting that most of the nearby housing was built shortly after World War II as service members returned home, utilized the GI Bill and raised families in the area, and many of them were ultimately buried in that cemetery.

Working together with Flags for Fort Snelling, a local nonprofit created a few years ago to help restore the practice of placing flags on every headstone at the cemetery, RBCU began soliciting donations for the project, along with dedicating some of its own funding and getting partnerships from throughout the community.

The credit union has about 22,000 members, and about 8,000 people took part in the project, either donating money, showing up on the day of the event place flags on gravesites, or both.

RBCU set an initial fundraising goal of $100,000 to cover 200,000 flags and other expenses, including renting shuttle buses to get participants to and from the event. Organizers also rented golf cars to help some participating veterans of WWII and the Korean War move around the cemetery. Beginning in September 2017, the credit union also started asking members for donations, eventually receiving funds from non-members who heard about the campaign through word of mouth.

“When they donated, we put their name on a paper U.S. flag and taped it to the wall, so our branch downstairs is full of American flags from members donating $5, $10 or $20 [or more] to the cause,” said Barduson.”

Yes, yes, yes

Throughout the fall and winter, word of the project spread.

“The first donation the credit union got was from the Bloomington American Legion,” recalled Barduson. “They said ‘We don’t know anything about Flags for Fort Snelling, but we do know our credit union, and we’ll support it because if you say this is what the money’s going toward, we’re in.’”

While the project “started out as a simple ‘let’s raise some money and put those flags out,’” said Barduson, it quickly morphed into a bigger initiative, as TV and social media picked up the cause to the point where donations came in from across the country, including from people who have relatives buried there and wanted to be supportive.

The Richfield Fire Department also got involved, said Barduson, with the local fire chief rallying other local chiefs to donate. The Mall of America even participated, allowing drivers to use the mall’s parking lot on the day of the event, since the cemetery couldn’t hold the several thousand cars participants drove to the shuttle buses that took them to the cemetery.

“Having 5,000 cars there on a Saturday morning wasn’t a problem,” quipped Barudson.

Two ladder trucks from the local fire department hoisted a giant American flag above the entrance to the parking lot for participants taking part in placing flags on grave sites at Fort Snelling National Cemetery prior to Memorial Day 2018.
Two ladder trucks from the local fire department hoisted a giant American flag above the entrance to the parking lot for participants taking part in placing flags on grave sites at Fort Snelling National Cemetery prior to Memorial Day 2018. Photo courtesy of RBCU/Richfield Fire Dept.

The Bloomington Fire Department even hoisted a giant American flag between two ladder trucks so all volunteers drove under that flag as they went to and from the event, and each fire chief escorted buses to the event so they didn’t have to stop for traffic lights – a must, said Barduson, since participants were on a time crunch to get all 200,000 flags placed before the cemetery opened for the day.

Shuttles began delivering participants to the cemetery at 5:00 A.M., and “we got most of the flagging done within about four hour” – a full hour before the cemetery had requested the project be completed. The credit union sent over a few teams after the fact to ensure all flags were properly placed and that no headstones had been missed. On Memorial Day itself, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and both the state’s U.S. senators visited, as did several Gold Star families, and there was a mini parade through part of the cemetery to honor those buried there.

Based on this year’s success, Barduson said the event is likely to be repeated next year.

“Everybody kept saying ‘Yes, I can do that, yes, I can do that,’” he recalled, adding “I’ve been involved in tons of events in my career and this is the one where pretty much everybody just said yes. We didn’t have to twist anybody’s arm or anything like that.”

A woman visits grave sites at Fort Snelling National Cemetery after Richfield-Bloomington Credit Union and other community partners placed flags at all 200,000 graves, the first time that has been accomplished in more than three decades.
A woman visits grave sites at Fort Snelling National Cemetery after Richfield-Bloomington Credit Union and other community partners placed flags at all 200,000 graves, the first time that has been accomplished in more than three decades. Photo courtesy of Mike Niesen/RBCU