Volunteers from the VFW Van Rensselaer Skidmore Post 2476 in Riverhead place a US flag on the grave of PFC Garfield M. Langhorn Jr., Suffolk's only Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War, at Riverhead Cemetery May 23.
Photo: Denise Civiletti

It was a little like looking for a needle in a haystack yesterday morning at St. John’s Cemetery, where about 10 members of the Riverhead VFW Auxiliary, led by past VFW post commander Joseph Edler, searched out graves of military veterans.

They were a contingent of volunteers placing U.S. flags on veterans’ graves at the cemetery, in a county-wide effort organized after the National Cemetery Administration decided to cancel group flag placement at all national cemeteries this weekend.

County Executive Steve Bellone’s pleas to allow the flag placement to go forward at Suffolk’s two national cemeteries fell on deaf ears at the Department of Veterans Affairs, so the county mobilized volunteers to place flags on the graves of veterans at other cemeteries throughout Suffolk.

Thousands of U.S. flags were donated by a variety of people, businesses and organizations. Veterans groups and Scout troops stepped up to place the flags at more than 16 cemeteries.

Karen Pierzchanowski of Riverhead places a flag on the grave of U.S. Coast Guard Commander Benjamin J. Kowalski.in St. John’s Cemetery May 23.
Photo: Denise Civiletti

But if there’s a centralized record of the locations of veterans’ gravesites in private cemeteries, that information wasn’t made available to the volunteers, who, clutching armfuls of flags, walked up and down the rows of headstones, section by section, searching for military emblems or engravings indicating military service on the headstones.

Their perseverance paid off. The volunteers found the graves of veterans of the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Volunteers at the grave of Vietnam War hero PFC Garfield M. Langhorn Jr. in Riverhead Cemetery May 23. Photo: Denise Civiletti

But the group still had a lot of flags left when they headed to Riverhead Cemetery to place a flag on the grave of Suffolk County’s only Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War, PFC Garfield M. Langhorn Jr. The Riverhead native, who was killed in Vietnam on Jan. 15, 1969 — nine years before Calverton National Cemetery opened in 1978 — is buried in Riverhead Cemetery in a family plot where his parents, Garfield Sr. and Mary, were later interred.

After honoring Langhorn, the group dispersed throughout Riverhead Cemetery — and there they found so many veterans’ graves they worried they would run out of flags.

Riverhead Cemetery dates back to 1859. Numerous Civil War veterans and casualties are buried there. Indeed, the cemetery is home to a tall granite Civil War monument, erected in 1871 to commemorate Riverhead men who lost their lives in the war.

The grave of Pvt. Van Rensselaer D. “Vannie” Skidmore, a 26-year-old Marine who was Riverhead’s first Word War I casualty. The VFW post in Riverhead is named in his memory. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Burials at Riverhead Cemetery include Pvt. Van Rensselaer D. “Vannie” Skidmore, the first man from Riverhead to die in World War I and the soldier for whom the Riverhead Veterans of Foreign Wars post is named. Skidmore, a 26-year-old Marine, was killed in the Battle of Belleau Woods, France on June 23, 1918.

VFW Auxiliary member Keri Najdzion, whose husband Thomas is the current post commander, happened upon Skidmore’s grave as she walked in the cemetery looking for military veterans.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.