Flag memorial stands as reminder of freedom's cost

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Like many of the 50 volunteers who planted small American flags beside Memorial Park Church in McCandless on Friday, John and Kathy Melcher are not members of the congregation.

One of the 6,673 flags represents their son, Army National Guard Spc. Mark Melcher of Mt. Lebanon, who died at 34 on April 15, 2006, when his M1A1 Abrams tank came under fire in Al Taqaddum, Iraq.

“We try to come to anything that has his name mentioned because we don't want just strangers hearing his name,” Kathy Melcher, 64, said while standing beside the “Field of Flags” as passing drivers on Duncan Avenue honked their approval.

On Saturday, Memorial Park will host a Ceremony of Remembrance under a tent beside the flags.

The number of flags matches the number of U.S. service members killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are part of a traveling memorial that was first displayed by the Memorial Garden Committee of Somers Congregational Church in Somers, Conn., on Oct. 23, 2005.

The display contained 2,231 flags then.

“Every church that we've been to, the volunteers just come to put these flags in the ground,” said Anne Kirkpatrick, a volunteer moderator at Somers Congregational. “Quite often, it turns into a community project, especially churches that are very, very small.”

Churches of any denomination may host the display, said Kirkpatrick, who drives the flags to churches with Jo-Ann Hornyak, a senior deacon at Somers.

Memorial Park, which has 1,550 members, is the 61st church to host the flags.

“It's never been to Western Pennsylvania, which is one of the reasons we wanted to bring it here,” said Jaime Dean, director of Memorial Park's Community Care for Military Team that is organizing the display at the church.

John L. Price, 76, of Mt. Washington volunteered to plant flags with two other members of the 1SG Leonard A. Funk Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division Association.

Price, who was a paratrooper in the Army's 11th Airborne Division from 1954-57, considers programs such as “Field of Flags” a reminder of the sacrifices made for America's freedoms.

“We did it for our country so we can live better than anybody else, and we do. … I been to other countries, and it's not like this. This is great,” he said.

The Somers church buys the 8- by 12-inch flags on 24-inch-tall staffs, Kirkpatrick said.

“We just ask each church to make a donation, and that donation goes to pay for additional flags,” she said.

Saturday's service will include clergy, active and retired service members, support groups, and Gold Star Families who have lost relatives in the military.

Squadron 603 of the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station will present the colors.

“Everyone has healing and needs healing in some capacity, and I'm just hoping that this is a step in their healing process,” said Dean, who founded the church's Community Care for Military Team in 2011 to provide support for military families and veterans. Her son was stationed in Afghanistan in the Army from June 2011-12, she said.

The names of 290 military casualties from Pennsylvania will be read at the ceremony. Yellow ribbons adorn 290 of the flags.

A board outside the church displays pages with the printed names of the casualties of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, alphabetized and divided by state.

The “Field of Flags” will be on display at Memorial Park until May 1. After that, Dean will drive them to a church in Michigan so Kirkpatrick and Hornyak won't have to make another trip to Pittsburgh before going to Michigan to help set up the flags.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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