There’s plenty of red, white and blue flying outside Westminster Presbyterian Church in Middletown, N.J., and it’s not part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) banner. Instead it’s flags – 6,744 of them to be exact – that adorn the lawn in front of the church.
The patriotic display is part of the church’s Field of Flags campaign that pays tribute to all those members of the military who lost their lives in service during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
The Field of Flags is a silent, patriotic and poignant reminder of the cost of war. Each flag represents a casualty, as well as the family members and friends who have been touched by that life sacrificed.
“Each flag represents one (U.S.) casualty lost in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001,” said Joseph Hein, pastor at Westminster since 2007. “They also represent our respect for those who have served and are serving in the military.”
One hundred twenty-four of those flags represent the service men and women from New Jersey who lost their lives in service to country.
How the flags came to be
This is the second year the flags have flown on the lawn at Westminster. The idea of placing the 2-foot flags in front of the church along busy Tindall Road came about when Julie Bair, a member of the congregation, wanted to pay tribute to a cousin who lost his life in service. U.S. Army Lt. Dennis Zilinski was killed Nov. 19, 2005, in Iraq by a roadside bomb during a combat operation, just two months after arriving in country.
Bair learned that Somers Congregational United Church of Christ in Connecticut honored those who perished in combat duty in such a way by delivering flags to other churches wanting to remember fallen soldiers, allowing them to display the flags on their property for a period of one month. The flags were delivered to Westminster March 9, 2012, and remained there until March 24, 2012.
So moving was the service of remembrance that Westminster’s membership wanted to continue to honor those fallen war heroes along with all active and inactive soldiers.
“Our church was so deeply touched that we purchased 7,500 flags to honor those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan each year moving forward,” Hein said, recalling the many tears shed during the 2012 service. “That will forever be a stamp on my soul. It was a sober experience and prideful experience at the same time.”
Establishing the field to pay tribute
Forty-six members of the congregation and some community volunteers gathered at the Middletown church Saturday, Oct. 19 and placed 6,742 flags in rows of remembrance. Two more were added a couple days later.
The flags, which cover more than a third of the lawn and are highly visible reminders of the sacrifices made by armed forces personnel, will fly until Nov. 16. Before they are taken down, Westminster will host its second service of remembrance at 1 p.m. on Nov. 9, two days before Veterans Days, inviting all 124 Gold Star families from New Jersey to attend. Fifty-five families were represented last year, and Hein expects that number to grow.
“It will be a silent, patriotic honoring of these men and women and a quiet honoring of the families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “The Field of Flags lays the groundwork for the service in a patriotic reminder of the gifts given for a country, the gift of their lives to protect freedoms.”
The event will feature speakers and hymns as well as the presentation of colors with the flags serving as a patriotic backdrop.
The flags also are a tribute to men and women killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Hein said that Middletown, a bedroom community of New York City located just 26 miles across the New York Bay, had more casualties in the Twin Towers attacks than any other community.
“Everybody here knows somebody who died in the 9/11 bombings (which sparked U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan),” Hein said. “I think that’s why this event is embraced so deeply.”
Hein spoke of the Presbyterian Church being a part of the fabric of American society, noting that he supports the ideals and institutions of America, one of which is its military.
“It’s part of the reason I embrace the Field of Flags,” he said with an emotional inflection in his voice.
A new feature
Westminster’s congregation added a new feature for this year’s event by lining the entrance and exit to the church with another 700 flags to represent 51,565 military personnel wounded in conflict, dubbing the drive “Wounded Way.” Along with the flags there are informational placards that talk about the effects of war – physical, mental and emotional – on soldiers trying to return to civilian life after their military experiences.
“We’re trying to raise the consciousness of the public to the sacrifice of those who gave their lives and those making the transition to civilian life after being wounded,” Hein said, noting the physical and invisible scars often carried by military personnel.
Swelling with pride
Hein said his daily drive into the church parking lot makes him proud to be an American and part of a church and community seeking to recognize and pay tribute to sacrifices of soldiers, their loved ones and friends.
“My heart swells with pride when I turn into the driveway and first see the field,” Hein said. “There is an equal amount of sadness when you realize each flag represents an American life lost or wounded as well as their families. This evokes a tremendous amount of pride and a deep sense of gratefulness of the sacrifice veterans make for us each and every day.”
And the Middletown community takes note of that as well. From his office, Hein often looks out the window to see people stopping by to view the flags and pay tribute, many of them military personnel in uniform or veterans of previous engagements who stand at attention and salute their fallen comrades.
People also stop in at the church to thank the congregation for its tribute to members of the military, and other churches have inquired about the display and possibly offering one at their locations. Many people simply honk their horns and flash a thumbs-up sign as they pass by, recognizing what has been done to honor those who gave their lives.
“It’s a great patriotic tribute soaked in tears and pride for what these men and women have done,” Hein said. “This field inspires people. It instills pride.”