Ten perfectly folded American flags rest on two tables, flanked on either side by a nameplate and a small black box. Each name plate is simply inscribed with the name of a veteran and his rank and service. The small black boxes hold the cremated remains of each veteran. Honor Guard members from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force stand guard in front of the tables in dress uniforms. They do not wear name tags. They are not individuals on this day, but representatives of a grateful service and nation.
Families find their seats under a green tent canopy and take in their surroundings. There are numerous monuments depicting military units and service members. A large golden bell sits off to the right, and in the center sits a small stone building with a plaque that reads "Catherine & Charles E. Kratz Memorabilia Honor Museum." Just behind the green tents, three flag poles surround a small replica of the Statue of Liberty, a 101st Airborne Division flag and the P.O.W. flag on either side of the American Flag.
Ten deceased veterans were laid to rest at Charles Kratz Memorial Park at Druid Ridge Cemetery in Baltimore on June 6 as part of the Veteran's Interment Project. This memorial service also marked the 73rd Anniversary of D-Day and was the largest in the program's history.
The Veteran's Interment Project, or VIP, was founded by Charles Kratz, a World War II veteran who later bonded with the 101st Airborne Division "Band of Brothers." His primary goal was to provide a final resting place for veterans whose circumstances might not allow a private burial. He purchased a large piece of land at Druid Ridge Cemetery and built the Charles Kratz Memorial Park to provide burial plots through his foundation. He also built memorials to units he served with during his time in the military, as well as the 101st Airborne Division.
Kratz's personal connection with the 101st allowed his project to continue even after his death in 2012.
Mr. Richard Schonberger, the chairman of the Board of Directors for the 101st Airborne Division Association, was asked to get involved with the project and has been the primary contact for his association and the Kratz Memorial Foundation for more than seven years.
"It was a quid pro quo, as it turned out," said Schonberger, referring to the relationship between the 101st Airborne Division Association and Kratz. "Because of his age and health, he wanted someone to take over his project with the park and our association was looking for donations to our scholarship fund."
In the years before his death, Kratz began funding the operation of the memorial project and made donations to the 101st Scholarship Fund. His son carries that on now. As part of that deal with Kratz, the 101st Airborne Division Association continues to maintain the VIP program.
"We wanted to help carry on his legacy," said Schonberger, who wore a dark blue suit with his numerous military awards and decorations on the left side of his jacket, above his heart. "I spent 23 years in the military. For me, it is a mission. You just do it the best way you know how."
Schonberger said often families of the deceased veteran are surprised members of the Kratz Foundation take the time to make sure full honors are given.
"It has been a worthwhile project," said Schonberger. "We kind of put this together. Mr. Kratz bought the graves, but there wasn't a firm plan in place. We decided to focus on two days a year where we could group veterans that would be laid to rest in order to maximize the support we could receive from outside sources. Having done this for seven years now, it is gratifying to me to see the satisfaction the families derive from this military ceremony."
Felecia Bell, a family service counselor at the cemetery, was selected to work with the Kratz VIP Board of Directors to get everything together.
"It is a great service to our veterans," said Bell. "My father was a veteran, and had I known about the Kratz project, I would have wanted him to be down here because it is simply beautiful."
Bell said it takes a lot of effort to organize the interment ceremony.
"The hardest part is the paperwork, getting everything together," said Bell. "Here at the cemetery, it is a process, and we had to do it for each individual person. It took a great team effort, but everybody did their part."
Bell said the process took over a month, but that it was worth it to see the final product.
"To work with everyone who puts this together, Ronn Wade and Mr. Schonberger especially, was interesting, and it was good to see how much they really respect and honor the guys who served for us," said Bell. "It was amazing to see."
One by one, the name of the veterans are read. As each name is read, the golden bell rings to honor them. A member of the honor guard gently picks up a folded flag, turns with tight military facing movements, and kneels to present the veteran's loved one with the flag. The Honor Guard expresses their gratitude to each family, one at a time, on behalf of the service and nation the veteran represented. Behind them, a bagpiper begins playing "Amazing Grace" and the music fades into the distance, passing the many monuments and gravestones, the mausoleums and statues, and even past the outer edge of the cemetery.