County volunteers quietly show respect for deceased veterans

County volunteers quietly show respect for deceased veterans

Jim Mertz does this job like the man before him. Washes the flags. Irons the flags. Replaces them when worn and tattered.

For 20 years, Mertz has been rallying a group, with varying success, to place American flags at every veteran's gravesite at the Algonquin Cemetery. There are 290 veterans buried there. Some years he's done the job solo, although this year he had nine others assisting his efforts.

Like so many helpers spread across the county, playing large or small roles in recognition of Memorial Day, Mertz performs his job with quiet, uncelebrated respect.

"I enjoy doing it," said Mertz, of the Lake in the Hills American Legion. "I hope Lenny LeDuke thinks proudly of me for taking it over."

Since 1948, Mertz said, LeDuke had been the one leading these efforts to pay respect to deceased veterans.

About 10 years ago, while the two were placing flags at Algonquin Cemetery, LeDuke called Mertz over, pointed down, showed him where his grave would be.

LeDuke helped out one more year. Two years later, he died, leaving Mertz fully in charge.

It's a responsibility he hasn't taken lightly. He travels around to area schools, telling 5th graders about the American flag. He only disposes the worn ones properly – on Flag Day.

And a few days before every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, he's out walking the cemetery placing flags with whoever shows. A few days after, he's taking them down. He hopes to be doing this for many years to come – though, he admits, he'd like to see some young guys show interest in taking the reigns.

"I'm 67," Mertz said. "I'm hoping that I might have another 13 years left."

Like Mertz, Valerie Wood-Hellyer was at the Algonquin Cemetery last week placing flags in preparation for Memorial Day. Wood-Hellyer said she's been pitching in for the last couple of years with the project.

"It's such a little way of giving back to the community and to our friends at the American Legion," she said.

Still, Wood-Hellyer hopes the flags make a meaningful impact on those who see them.

"I just hope when people drive by, when people see the flags, it makes them aware of what the day really is," she said.

For Tom Aellig, the day takes on a heightened significance. Aellig, a Vietnam veteran, lost his brother to war growing up. He's cared for his brother's grave ever since.

Commander of American Legion Post 171 in Crystal Lake, Tom Aellig helps organize the Crystal Lake Memorial Day Parade and Cemetery Service.

"I carry on the family tradition, so to speak," he said.

Aellig added that he hopes events like the parade and service help quiet distractions during the day and bring the focus back to what it should be on.

"That hour is in respect of all those men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice," he said.

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