Their charitable work isn't flagging

Volunteers to continue despite plant's closing

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Though their own futures may be blowing in the wind, 35 employees of the GE-Hitachi plant in Canonsburg met Thursday at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies to raise 100 American flags for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

This is the third year of the pre-Memorial Day gathering, and will be their last year performing the service as GE-Hitachi employees, because their workplace, the Nuclear Energy Custom Fabrication Plant, is closing in late October.

The idea to acquire and display the flags at the cemetery began in 2011, when two GE-Hitachi employees, Renee Beck and Becky Quinn, formed a volunteer committee to help out in the community.

The committee first focused on the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides services for post 9/11 veterans, and set a goal to raise $10,000 for the project.

After raising and donating the money in 2012, they used leftover funds to buy flags and poles for this project.

They continued to raise money, and this year, reached their goal of 100 flags.

The U.S.-made flags, known as burial flags, are 5 feet by 9 feet, 5 inches, and are given to families when a veteran dies.

Some families have donated their burial flags to the cemetery, said Ron Hestdalen, the cemetery director and a retired Marine Corps veteran. But since the cemetery relies entirely on volunteer efforts for flags and poles, he welcomed the additional help.

"When I arrived here in 2009, our Avenue of Flags consisted of 10 flags," he said. "The only reason one can have these flags is from the generosity of the veterans and the community members."

Whether the flag raising-- and fundraising-- will continue remains to be seen.

For now, the employees, several of whom are veterans, have made a commitment to return in November for Veterans Day.

"I'm a veteran, and it's something I want to do because I like helping veterans that served our country," said Robert Simms, a welder at the plant. "And plus, that's going to be my final resting place, and I hope someone does that for me, too, you know?"

Bob Lillge, the plant manager, spent 30 years on a Navy submarine crew. He was honored to help raise the flags, though he doesn't want to be buried in a national cemetery.

"I, personally, am going to be buried at sea," he said.

Clifford Mitchell, a utility grinder who served in the Army, said that seeing the rows of marble headstones at the National Cemetery reminded him of a phrase from the Gettysburg Address.

"The full measure of devotion," he said. "You feel that when you're here."

Mr. Mitchell said that he plans to help out next year, and to visit the cemetery when he needs a little perspective in life.

"We're going through a tough time, but we're at a place where people have gone further already," he said.

About 8,500 veterans are interred in the 280-acre cemetery, which opened in 2005. On average, 25 burials take place there per week.


Brett Sholtis: bsholtis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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