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There are flags flying on this holiday in front of every grave at Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington, D.C. They're small flags, more than 270,000 of them, and they were placed there last Thursday afternoon, all of them. It's the only time during the year when you will see flags on those graves, and NPR's Noah Adams reports on the people who placed them.

NOAH ADAMS: The Army calls it flags-in day. It happens the Thursday before the holiday weekend starts and it's a big military operation conducted by the 3rd U.S. Infantry, the Old Guard, which is based at Ford Myer right next to the cemetery.

Unidentified Man #3: Up on the road, form it up.

ADAMS: About 3:00, when the burials are finished for the day, the trucks bring out the big wooden crates and drop them off at each section of gravesites. Crates full of flags, the wooden sticks still muddy from last year. The flags have a sharp point on top. They are pushed into the ground by hand and it hurts.

Sergeant JORDAN RAMSEY (U.S. Army): The trick is my leather gloves and then I got a Gatorade cap in here so I got something to push off of. It saves your palms from getting stabbed.

ADAMS: Sergeant Jordan Ramsey. The hard, dry ground makes it frustrating. One soldier said, I prayed for rain last night, but I guess it didn't go through. Staff Sergeant Orem Jenkins showed me how far from the front of the gravestone to place for flag. It's the distance of a real foot.

So what do you do? You put your foot against theā€¦

Staff Sergeant OREM JENKINS (U.S. Army): Yes, so there's approximately, like, a foot away so you don't have some, you know, real close and some real far away. Granted, my foot might be bigger than the next guys, but at least, you know, we're making a conscious effort.

Staff Sergeant HEATHER TRIBBLE (U.S. Army): I'm Staff Sergeant Heather Tribble. Our unit is actually the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

ADAMS: To help out with flags-in day, other branches of the service has sent honor guards. But most of the flags are placed by the Old Guard. For Staff Sergeant Tribble, this is her third year.

Staff Sgt. TRIBBLE: It's sad. Obviously, you see a lot of the older ones, you know, right next to a lot of the newer ones, some even from this year that we saw as we're going by, you know, some that weren't there in our section last year. We do the same sections every year. So it's kind of a hard to think about, but it's a nice thing to do for somebody.

ADAMS: The women and the men in camouflage, their rucksacks full of flags, spread out over the hillsides. They are resupplied as needed, they have water, they move deliberately. About 6:00, an officer hears the faint notes of a bugle and calls his company to attention.

Unidentified Man #4: (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of "Taps")

ADAMS: "Taps" is being played as part of a replaying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns on the hillside of the cemetery. And by tradition here at this sound, soldiers will stand in respect.

(Soundbite of "Taps")

ADAMS: As the day ends, I find Sergeant Michael Beams(ph) walking along with a bag of spare flags, following up, he's making sure things look good. He is by himself and has a chance to think about the cemetery, the old graves and the new ones.

Sergeant MICHAEL BEAMS (U.S. Army): Every once in a while I'll stop, Army captain, World War II. I find a lot of Medal of Honor winners, Purple Heart, Bronze Star winners. Here is one buried over there, the whiter stone, he died in Iraq. I was there, too.

ADAMS: Tomorrow, members of the Old Guard will take up the flags and they'll go back in storage for next year's Thursday before Memorial Day.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can hear remembrances of those who have died in the Iraq war and get a timeline of key events in an interactive feature called The Toll of War at npr.org.

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