“It’s so important to these families to make sure we’re saying their hero’s name and honoring them.” – Army spouse Tina Saari
The rain wasn’t ideal. But Marine veteran Chad Johnson recalls the dreary weather was apropos for the occasion.
“It was cloudy. It was overcast. It was rainy. It was not a pleasant day,” Johnson said. “But personally, as a military veteran, that’s how I felt inside.”
Last May, Johnson, along with his wife and son, joined hundreds of volunteers at Arlington National Cemetery to participate in The Honor Project, a new initiative spearheaded by the Travis Manion Foundation (TMF) that recruits volunteers to visit the gravesites of fallen service members on behalf of family and friends who cannot be present themselves.
A former combat engineer who now serves as TMF’s chapter lead in Raleigh, North Carolina, Johnson signed up for The Honor Project as soon as he heard about it.
“I couldn’t think of a better way to memorialize our fallen service members than to go to Arlington and play a small part in making sure they’re not forgotten,” he said.
For Johnson, who served during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, the visit to Arlington was especially meaningful with his family by his side.
“My son wasn’t born until many years after I left the Marine Corps,” he said, “so he never knew me when I was active duty.”
Walking past row after row of perfectly aligned headstones, Johnson recalls the powerful conversations he had with his son, who was 15 at the time.
“Every one of these stones represents a person who was once on this earth who is no longer here,” Johnson explained. “When someone asks you what the cost of freedom is, this is it.”
Army spouse Tina Saari, senior director of TMF’s National Engagement Programs, shares The Honor Project’s grassroots beginnings.
“It started in 2020 during COVID when travel was difficult and people were not able to visit their loved ones interred at Arlington,” Saari said.
On Memorial Day 2020, TMF volunteer Emily Domenech went to Arlington to pay respects at a family member’s gravesite. Due to the pandemic restrictions in place at the time, only those with a family pass could enter the historic grounds.
Noticing how empty the cemetery was, Domenech posted on Twitter, “Does anyone have buddies buried in Arlington who they would like visited today? Since only family members are allowed in, I would be honored to pay respects on your behalf … ”
The tweet went viral, and Domenech received a flood of requests to visit loved ones interred there. Recognizing the values of TMF, which was founded to continue the legacy of a Marine killed in Iraq, Domenech wanted to keep the movement going. After collaborating with TMF leadership, The Honor Project was born.
During the next few weeks, surviving family and battle buddies can submit names and gravesites of loved ones interred at participating cemeteries through TMF’s website. The week of Memorial Day, TMF will mobilize volunteers to lay a handmade, metal flag of valor at each site and take pictures to share with family members and battle buddies.
“Something I always hear from families of the fallen is they’re so afraid their hero will be forgotten,” Saari said. “It’s so important to these families to make sure we’re saying their hero’s name and honoring them. This is one way we can do that.”
Last Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of military families, veterans, service members, community members and families of the fallen volunteered to say names, take pictures and lay plaques at some 4,000 service members’ gravesites.
This year, the program is expanding beyond Arlington to include additional cemeteries throughout the country. Locations and opportunities to get involved nationwide will be announced on TMF’s website.
For Johnson, who plans to return to Arlington at the end of May, volunteering with The Honor Project left a lasting impression.
“These veterans paved the way for our future and protected our way of life at the ultimate cost,” he said. “It’s our obligation and responsibility to their surviving family members to ensure the service and sacrifice of their loved ones are never forgotten.”
For more information about volunteering with The Honor Project or submitting the name of a service member, visit www.travismanion.org/events/thehonorproject.