Families observe Memorial Day, honor ancestors who served, with flag refolding in Shiprock

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

SHIPROCK — Waterflow resident Velma James tightly held her father's flag after it was refolded by members of the Morgan and Singer Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9517 at the Shiprock Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

As James softly cried into the fabric, her sister, Peggy Phillips of Shiprock, provided comfort by patting her left shoulder.

This was the first time the sisters attended the Memorial Day and flag refolding ceremonies held by the VFW Post 9517, based in Shiprock.

Their father, William George, was a Navajo Code Talker in World War II and served in the South Pacific islands, including the Battle of Okinawa.

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Morgan and Singer Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9517 member Tommy L. Sandman helps unfold a flag on May 31 at Shiprock Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

The sisters explained that when their father died 16 years ago, the flag was presented to his second wife and, when she died, her family decided to give the flag to Phillips, James and their siblings.

Their father and his second wife did not have any children, which was a reason the flag was returned two years ago, the sisters explained.

"It was an honor because we knew how our dad felt, who he was," Phillips said.

Members of the Morgan and Singer Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9517 and the Shiprock Veterans Organization refold flags on May 31 at the Shiprock Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

James added that their father always told them that he enlisted in the Marines because he was fighting to protect the land.

"As a young child, I always looked up to him. I thought he was my hero," James said.

Mark Decker, quartermaster adjutant of the VFW Post 9517, explained that flags brought to the event had been folded at the funeral service of the deceased.

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While the VFW holds Memorial Day ceremonies across the country, the unfolding and refolding of flags is unique to the Navajo People and is a service provided by Post 9517 after receiving numerous requests by tribal members several years ago, Decker said.

Peggy Phillips, left, comforts her sister, Velma James, after receiving their father's refolded flag on May 31 at Shiprock Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

"They like to have it, every once in a while, unfolded. … It's feeling their relatives coming to them again," Decker said.

During the ceremony, Decker read messages from the VFW about Memorial Day and the proclamation signed on May 28 by President Joe Biden.

"On Memorial Day, we honor and reflect upon the courage, integrity, and selfless dedication of the members of our armed forces who have made the greatest sacrifice in service to our nation," the proclamation states.

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Lower Fruitland resident Freida Johnson stood next to her grandson, Keishaun Johnson, and watched the veterans refold her father's flag.

Her father, Fred Earl Johnson, served in the Army during World War II. He died in 1978.

"Every year, I bring his flag," Freida Johnson said fighting back tears.

Family members wait to have flags refolded on May 31 at the Shiprock Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

Johnson said when she watches the flag being refolded, she thinks about her parents, who are both deceased, and about her father's military service.

She is following her mother's lead in having the flag refolded and is now teaching her grandson to carry on the family tradition.

"I'm trying to teach him about what you do for your grandpa," Johnson said.

Morgan and Singer Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9517 member Harlin Benally, left, and Shiprock Veterans Organization Commander Lloyd Begaye re-fold flags brought to the Shiprock Veterans Memorial Cemetery on May 31.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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