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Woman launches effort to visit graves of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day when their families cannot

Emily Domenech has visited her grandfather's gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Memorial Day since his death.

Woman launches effort to visit graves of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day when their families cannot
Cover Image Source: Instagram | @travismanionfoundation

It's heartbreaking when somebody wants to visit the grave of a loved one but can not due to several reasons. As disheartening as it is, life sometimes comes in the way. This is where Emily Domenech comes into the picture. She visits the graves of fallen soldiers if their loved ones cannot make it. Domenech has visited her grandfather's gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia every Memorial Day since his death. She is now paying tribute to thousands of other fallen soldiers through an initiative known as "The Honor Project."

When COVID rules at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day limited visitors to family members with a special pass, Domenech had an idea while visiting her grandfather, Col. John Domenech, who died in 2006. This idea inspired her to post on Twitter in May 2020: "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."


Domenech expected to hear from a few close friends, but to her surprise, she got responses from far and wide. "After hundreds, then thousands of responses, it became so clear that there was a huge need and desire to honor fallen people," Domenech, a stepmother of three, told TODAY. "Families from all around the world said things like, 'My grandfather or uncle is buried there and I can't travel from Kansas.'"

Domenech "ran around Arlington Cemetery like a crazy person" for eight hours that day, tweeting photos of requested gravestones. She placed a flower on each grave, some from bouquets she bought for her grandfather and some from a non-profit group that distributed them in the cemetery. Domenech drove to the store to get more when she ran out. "I (barely) ate or drank, although my parents, whose barbecue I wound up skipping that day, brought me a sandwich and spent three hours helping me visit more graves, take photos and reply to tweets," she said.


When a Twitter user discovered Domenech's personal Venmo account and offered to send donations, she directed them to a number of charities, including the Travis Manion Foundation. Its president is Ryan Manion, whose younger brother Travis Manion, a former Marine Corps first lieutenant, died in Iraq while saving the lives of his wounded teammates. The Honor Project is an annual Memorial Day event created by Domenech and the Travis Manion Foundation, an organization that helps veterans and surviving families thrive in their post-military lives. 

The Honor Project intends to give back on Memorial Day. Volunteers from all over the country come to place Flags of Valour at gravesites, say each person's name aloud, and reflect on their sacrifices. To date, volunteers have visited the graves of over 5,000 fallen soldiers across seven cemeteries. Organizers hope to decorate over 10,000 gravesites in 14 public military cemeteries this year. The majority of events take place on Memorial Day.


Domenech recalls visiting the graves of many deceased service members. Two of them are those of "Air Force Capt. Ryan S. Phaneuf, who was killed in Afghanistan in January 2020 and buried a month later," and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez, buried at Arlington. "One year, I went to visit his grave and found a bottle of alcohol and a little stack of cups (with a sign) that read, 'Take a shot for Rod.' I'll never meet that family, but I feel so (special) to be a part of their (lives)," she said.

"We all don't have to serve in the military, but we must have an understanding and appreciation of those that do," Domenech added. "It's important to acknowledge why this weekend exists... no one wants their loved one's name and story to die... Those people sacrificed so you could have that barbecue... their sacrifice is why we have this incredible free country."


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