Making a Difference: WWII veteran flags otherwise unmarked graves

ROCK COUNTY, Wis. (WMTV)-- Before Memorial Day each year, 94-year-old Lew Harned of Madison takes time to remember those who might otherwise be forgotten. For four years, the World War II veteran has flagged forgotten veterans' graves in two rural Rock County cemeteries--Lima Center and Utters Corners.

Lew Harned of Madison salutes a veteran's grave in rural Rock County after placing a flag on it.

While placing the flags on the graves Harned said, "It's my honor, not only to have served my country, but to be able to come out here and honor these men."

Each year, Lew and his daughter Linda head out to the cemeteries to place a new American flag at the graves of veterans, some from wars in the 19th century…others from wars in the 20th century.

As Lew carefully walks over the uneven terrain in the old graveyards, he pauses to salute each veteran after placing the flag….and then pauses to reflect. Harned said, with emotion in his voice, “I’m just thinking about the service this man…this veteran did. It’s quite an honor to even be here to do this. It gets to me.”

Born in 1924, Lew was raised in a patriotic household, where the kids were expected to jump to attention when the Star Spangled Banner came on the radio.

As soon as he became old enough to enlist during World War II he tried to do so, but the military turned him down because of problems with his eyesight. “It just crushed me that I could not enlist for World War II”, Harned said.

He still found a way to serve, volunteering to drive ambulances for the American Field Service (AFS) in combat zones in Europe. He went on to serve as a U.S. Air Force surgeon during the Korean War, and again at age 67 in Desert Storm, retiring from the Wisconsin Army National Guard as a Brigadier General.

Harned says he is grateful to have served….and grateful to have come home safely, when so many others did not. That’s why he takes time each year before Memorial Day to remember his fellow, fallen veterans with the flags. Harned said, "We do it because I'm so proud of these men and what they did for our country. This is just a little something that I can do."

It’s something he says he’ll continue to do for those who no longer can. “I’ll be 95 in August, and as long as I can keep going the way I am right now, I’ll do this as long as I can. Maybe someday there might be a young man who will come put a flag at my burial place. I hope so.”

He does it because for Lew Harned, these men who lie below the flags that mark their graves aren’t strangers…they are just brothers-in-arms he never met.

Lew Harned during the Korean War
Lew Harned in Operation Desert Storm. He retired from the Wisconsin Army National Guard as a Brigadier General.
Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs
Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs