Elgin veteran honors military, first responders with flag displays
Jerry Christopherson and his team of volunteers have set up dozens of American flag displays throughout the suburbs over the past decade.
Some fields have honored the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Others welcomed home Vietnam War veterans or represented soldiers who died in combat.
Before every event, memorial or tribute, when the last pole is put in the ground and the hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of flags begin to fly, Christopherson takes a step back and soaks in their beauty. But he never forgets their meaning.
"It's not just the flags. It's the reason they're there," he says. "When you say, 'Each flag (represents) a person,' that really puts everything into perspective."
A Carpentersville native who now lives in Elgin, Christopherson commits much of his time to honoring military personnel, veterans and first responders through the True Patriots Care organization.
He is an Army veteran himself, drafted during the Vietnam War the day he turned 19.
Though he never served in country, he witnessed firsthand the way soldiers were mistreated when they returned home. Passersby called them names, spit on them and threw things at them, and many never received the "welcome home" they deserved, Christopherson said.
"You can hate the war," he says, "but don't hate the warriors."
Years later, Christopherson tracked down a Utah organization that specialized in creating flag displays. He wanted to do something similar in the suburbs.
His first display, called a Healing Field of Honor, was put up on Memorial Day weekend in 2010. More than 1,600 flags were installed at Carpenter Park in Carpentersville to represent the solders who were missing in action or prisoners of war during Vietnam.
The following year, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the flags honored those killed in the terrorist attacks.
That was supposed to be it. Those were the only two displays Christopherson had planned.
But the next year, there were some flags left over, so he decided to honor first responders.
And then he organized a tribute for soldiers from Illinois who were killed, and then another for World War II vets. And the concept kept growing.
"People were asking for our flags at all different places," he said.
True Patriots Care now is present at several events throughout the suburbs each year, in addition to hosting some displays of its own. The organization also brings its flags to funerals for police, firefighters and veterans.
"What I want people to know is when they go by a funeral home and they see flags out there, they know a soldier died today," Christopherson said.
"It means a lot to the families that we recognize their service to our country."
In coordination with the American Legion Post 679, the group also recently spearheaded efforts to bring a three-fourths replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to West Dundee. The Wall That Heals, accompanied by a flag display, drew an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people to the exhibit in four days.
True Patriots Care is run entirely by volunteers, said Christopherson, who is the building manager at York High School in Elmhurst by trade. Sponsorships help fund the purchase of new flags as old ones retire, as well as trailers to carry them around the area.
It's a lot of work, he said, but it's worth every second.
"It's just the right thing to do."