Veterans and volunteers decorate Anchorage gravesites for Memorial Day

About 12 hours after Bradley Lopez arrived in Alaska, he found himself standing in Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.

The U.S. Navy veteran got some sleep after his plane from Houston landed at 1 a.m. and then he headed to the cemetery to honor fallen military members in advance of Memorial Day. Lopez is working in Anchorage until August installing home security systems.

On Sunday afternoon, Lopez kneeled to peel grass away from edges of veterans’ grave markers and brush away the dirt. He doesn’t know anyone in Alaska, but said he feels connected to the veterans that rested beneath his feet.

Lopez joined the Navy in 2017 but was medically discharged just over a year later after badly injuring his knee during training. Before the military, he said he was aimless. “I was a lot like those kids that before going in, they didn’t really have a purpose, they’re just wake up, work, eat, rinse, repeat over and over and over,” he said.

[A rundown of Memorial Day events Monday in Anchorage and Mat-Su]

Lopez said his time in the Navy and the strong friendships he made with others in the military gave him a profound respect for those who were killed in action.

“When you give life to the service it’s like you’re always there, you’re trained and it’s like these are your brothers and sisters,” he said. “So when you think about those who are still in, your buddies, it’s just like, ‘Just come home safe.’ And so coming and being able to honor those by acknowledging it, helping clean a little bit -- it’s kind of a small thing that I can do.”

Shortly after Lopez arrived on Sunday, dozens of volunteers arrived to stick flags near the grave markers. He joined the efforts.

Nearby, Cap. Karen Padgett of the Lake Hood Civil Air Patrol passed out flags to members of her squadron. It’s the second year that the group joined a local VFW post to pay respects on Memorial Day weekend.

Earlier Sunday, groups of teenage Scouts placed white crosses adorned with red poppies near the gravestones.

Padgett, who works with teenagers on the Civil Air Patrol’s cadet program, said the hands-on work is a memorable way for teens to honor those who died.

“I feel like this is something tangible that I can do and also rally some other folks from the squadron to do with me to show our appreciation for the people that gave their lives so we can be free,” she said. “And to help the teenagers understand that it’s not just hot dogs and picnics and a day off of work for their parents, but that there’s a deep, important meaning behind the holiday.”