Remembering an almost 30-year family tradition

What started in tragedy became a beloved event for local scouts

By Marguerite Cleveland on May 17, 2018

In April 1989, Gary Stedman lost his beloved wife to breast cancer. He wanted his three young children to become comfortable going to a cemetery, so he began to take them to the Fort Lewis Cemetery to place flags at each gravesite prior to Memorial Day.

Stedman was in charge of special projects at the Department of Public Works (DPW) on Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) and recently retired.

"That first year, my three children and I put out all the flags, over 900," Stedman recalled. "Casey was 6, Andy was 4 and Jill was 3. I taught them how to place the flags according to Army regulations. We put out the flags ourselves that year, and then I started inviting Casey and Andy's Cub Scout Pack #211 in Lacey."

As the years went on, he invited other packs and Boy Scout Troops. In 1993, he remarried and his crew now included three sons, two daughters and wife Cherie Jorgensen Stedman.

"There were times that it rained too much on Thursday and Friday (the days grounds staff wanted the flags placed) to put out the flags, so it turned out that the kids and I would show up early Saturday morning and do the flags ourselves," Stedman said. "For a few years, my son David also played ‘Taps' after we were finished."

Stedman recruited scouts from Olympia, Lacey and Fort Lewis.

"When we started, it would take my family more than two hours to place the flags," he said. "As we got more Cub packs, Boy Scout troops, Brownies and Girl Scout troops, we often finished in about a half hour, and then I would give my little history talk on the history of the cemetery and Memorial Day."

Every year before Memorial Day, Stedman took the flags home to fix any that were damaged and remove any broken stakes. Torn and dirty flags were removed, and he verified that there would be enough good flags for every headstone. Stedman turned the removed flags over to the Boy Scouts, who had a ceremony to burn them properly and according to Army regulations.

"Putting the flags on the graves is important to remember," Stedman said. "To remember those that have served in the military, and those that gave their lives in the service of their country. Too often, they are forgotten. Fort Lewis (now JBLM) always has a ceremony for Memorial Day. Putting out the flags is important. It's what I have taught my children and the scouts. A little history never hurts the kids, and they all get a short history lesson from me. It is the right thing to do."

Some of the Fort Lewis Cemetery history that Stedman shared with scouts over the years includes:

Before Stedman started putting out the flags in 1989, DPW Buildings and Grounds staff put them out. As of now, that duty will now pass back to them after almost 30 years.