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A Flag and a Promise Live On

A chance meeting sets one woman on a mission to mark Vietnam veterans graves every year with a flag

A Flag and A Promise Live : Kimberly Shordt

Photo by Andrew Spear/Aurora Select

Central Catholic High School students commemorate the service of a Vietnam soldier and alumnae by marking his grave with a flag every Memorial Day and Veteran's Day.


Editor's Note: The Old Glory Club at Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio, featured in this 2009 article, remains committed to honoring fallen veterans. The students are working with the local VFW post to place 10,000 to 15,000 flags on vets' graves in time for Memorial Day, and will do it again for Veterans Day.

It was a chance encounter in a cemetery. The two women spoke briefly. One gave the other a small flag. Then they parted, never to meet again.

But that fleeting exchange more than a decade ago had a lasting effect on Mary Worden, 70. The Toledo, Ohio, woman had been visiting Calvary Cemetery with her husband, William, to place a flag on her parents’ grave for Memorial Day. The woman she met, Lucy Bruno, had been visiting her son’s grave.

“She told me her son had been killed in the Vietnam War,” Worden recalls, but his grave didn’t have a flag. The two mothers talked for a few minutes, then said goodbye. But Worden suddenly turned back. Approaching Bruno, she handed her the flag.

After Bruno had left the cemetery, Worden and her husband went over to the grave. The marker showed it belonged to Vito Bruno, an Army medic who had died Dec. 11, 1966. He was 24 years old.

“It’s always bothered me that our Vietnam vets did not get the respect they were due,” Worden says. That day she promised herself that Vito Bruno’s grave would get a flag every year.

And for more than 10 years, Worden and her husband kept their word. Every Memorial Day, William would trim the grass around the grave marker and Mary would add a flag. When Lucy Bruno died in 2003, they began doing the same for her grave.

But this year, William Worden is in hospice care and Mary, who doesn’t drive, found that she couldn’t make the Memorial Day trip to the cemetery. Although her husband’s hospice caregiver offered to do it for them, Mary decided it was time to reach out to a younger generation to help continue the tradition.

She called the local newspaper, the Toledo Blade, and talked to a reporter. She also called Central Catholic High School, Vito Bruno’s alma mater, hoping some of the students might be willing to take on the responsibility.

This wasn’t the first time Worden had taken a personal interest in a soldier. In 1990, when advice columnist Ann Landers asked readers to write to enlisted men, Worden began sending cards and holiday packages to a Missouri soldier who still calls her every Mother’s Day.

She also corresponded for four years with the Ohio family of Pfc. Matthew Maupin, who was captured in Iraq in 2004. When his remains were found last year, Worden’s son rode a motorcycle as an honor guard during the memorial procession.

To Worden, who currently writes to family friends serving in Afghanistan, it’s a matter of both respect and empathy. “People don’t realize how lonesome these young men and women in the military can be when they’re so far from home,” she says.

She feels particularly strongly about remembering Vietnam veterans, who she feels “were so ostracized,” when they returned to the United States after the war.

The story about Bruno’s grave and Worden’s dilemma ran on Memorial Day, and the paper received nearly 100 calls, letters and e-mails, according to reporter Janet Romaker. Many of those who volunteered to help were “older people, like ourselves,” says Worden.

But she also heard from a new club at Central Catholic High School that was started last year by American history and government teacher Tony Katafiasz, 33, a Marine Corps veteran. His group, the Old Glory Club, offered to place a flag not only on Vito Bruno’s grave, but also on the graves of other veterans who were Central Catholic graduates.

That appealed to Worden. “So many younger people don’t go to the cemetery anymore. They don’t realize how many stories there are in cemeteries.”

So when Romaker called her to find out who Worden had picked to take on the annual task, Worden didn’t hesitate. “I want the high school group to do it,” she told her.

Katafiasz expects his club will have about a dozen 10th- to 12th-graders when school starts again this fall. He plans to have the students bring flags to the cemetery “on Memorial Day and on Veterans Day. It will help teach them about duty and about what you owe your country,” says Katafiasz, who served at Camp LeJeune, N.C., from 1993 to 1997.

Worden’s isn’t completely abandoning her responsibilities, however. Next May, she says, “you better believe I will call to make sure they’ve done it.”

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