In 2015, just past his 10th birthday, Preston Sharp went to the Redding Memorial Cemetery in the Northern Californian town on Veterans Day to honor his grandfather.
He placed a small American flag and a red carnation at the gravesite, then saw to his surprise that the same thing wasn’t happening all around the cemetery.
“I was wondering where all the people were to be honoring on Veterans Day at my grandpa’s cemetery," he told a handful of people at Mountview Cemetery Saturday morning in Billings. "Because there’s around 4,000 veterans there and it’s not even a veterans’ cemetery.”
The experience left him frustrated and a little angry. His mom, he said, told him when he saw something wrong, he should do something about it.
So Preston did.
He started with all the cemeteries in Redding, decorating veterans’ gravesites with flags and flowers, then all the cemeteries between Redding and Sacramento, 162 miles away. And then he kept going.
“Since then I’ve placed 160,000 flags and flowers out on veterans’ gravesites in 21 states,” he said as the others listened.
Then Preston, now 12, handed bundles of flags to the other volunteers, including members of Engine 3 from the Billings Fire Department. He explained that they should center the flag poles in the grass a few inches from the headstone.
Preston also reminded them to speak each veteran’s name out loud and to thank them for their service.
“If the name isn’t said out loud, it will be forgotten,” he said. “So we keep it alive.”
Then the group began their work, fanning out to poke the flags into the manicured lawn next to the evenly spaced gravestones. As Preston went along, he took his own advice, planting the flag poles, glancing at the names on the gravestones and quietly extending his gratitude.
“Thank you for your service, Weldon,” he said softly, then moved to the next gravesite. “Thank you for your service, Albert. Thanks you for your service, Stephen. Thank you for your service, Wallace.”
Word about Preston’s campaign has gotten out. When he was 11, he was featured in an On The Road segment on CBS Evening News.
Preston and his mother also were invited to attend President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in January. The president, who singled out the boy sitting in the gallery, praised him for “a job well done,” which was followed by a standing ovation by members of Congress.
“It was just an awesome experience meeting the president and vice president and the second lady and the first lady,” Preston said Saturday. “It was a great experience and I loved Washington, D.C.”
The youth’s main goal is to try to get to all the national cemeteries in the United States to honor every veteran with a flag, and to visit cemeteries in all 50 states. He’d like to see others join him in his effort, saying it should be a year-round effort.
“Honor veterans every day, and not just on a holiday,” he said.
Keith James, Preston’s godfather, and James’ wife, Meghan, have accompanied the boy on several of his trips. As they travel, James and Preston visit VA hospitals and veterans’ homes to sit and listen to their old soldiers' stories.
On Saturday, while eating breakfast in Billings, they noticed a veteran of the Korean War at the next table. So the pair went and sat with the man and thanked him for his service.
“He was just blown away,” James said of the man. “He’s seen Preston on TV and he was so thankful that Preston’s generation is doing this to remember all our veterans.”