Marina Chardukian and other volunteers put flags out for Veterans Day. (Alice Daniel/KQED)
Susan Rivas visits her father’s grave at Ararat Massis Armenian Cemetery in Fresno every week. She buffs the black granite headstone with liquid soap and a big piece of gray pumice. She uses jugs of water to rinse it.
Rivas always puts flowers on Joe Sahakian’s grave -- and on Veterans Day, a flag for his service in World War II.
“He was in the 503rd army, which was a secret kind of an air group,” she says. “They went to Panama. And he was so good at everything that he did that he was recruited by President Truman to fly secret missions with him. He was his crew chief.”
Sahakian maintained and sometimes flew the presidential aircraft, also known as the Sacred Cow. But he was equally proud of his military service, and his Army branch is inscribed on the headstone.
Still, not all gravesites show if someone served. The Veterans Administration provides special headstones or markers, but only at the request of the family. Take the Bedrosian family plot, where some of Marina Chardukian’s relatives are buried.
“This is my great-great grandfather and he was in the Army. But it doesn’t say it on there at all, that he was in the Army,” Chardukian says.
In fact, Chardukian has four relatives buried here who are veterans. It’s one reason she has volunteered at this Armenian cemetery for years with her church youth group.
“Since I was 12 and now I’m 18, so wow that’s a long time,” she says. “We’ve put flags for Veterans Day and Memorial Day around on the veterans' graves.” But, she says, no one would know her relatives were veterans if there weren’t family members available to place the flags.
Chardukian is a lifetime Girl Scout. She decided to earn her highest honor, the prestigious Gold Award, by identifying unmarked veterans' graves here.
She put permanent flat metal flag emblems on 200 cornerstones. Chardukian asked for donations and information on veterans by mailing 1,500 letters to families connected with the cemetery. Susan Rivas gave her the metal emblems at cost from her family’s business, Sunnyside Trophy. And many people, such as Robert Srabian, wrote back asking for an emblem.
“Here’s a picture of him in his military uniform,” says Srabian.
It’s a warm fall day and he’s sitting in the cemetery office looking at photos of his father-in-law, George Gulian. “And then I have a family picture where he was the youngest of the whole crew. It must have been taken in Turkey.”
Like others buried here, Gulian was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. When he was young, a group of soldiers came to his town in Turkey to round up and kill all the boys.
“My father-in-law’s mother went and grabbed a dress and draped it over him because he was only 10 years old,” Srabian says. “He had no facial hair, and so he could pass as a young girl. And they got away with it.”
Gulian eventually immigrated to California. He loved his new country and was proud to be drafted into the Army, although his service was short. He was a tailor by trade and altered uniforms for the military. When he got out, he opened a tailor shop in Fresno.
“He had visitors all the time. They’d come and sit and have their little Armenian coffee, discuss politics,” says Srabian. “Then a favorite friend would come in. William Saroyan would ride in on his bicycle, sit down and talk with them.”
That's William Saroyan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author -- and also a veteran. Half of his remains are buried at Ararat Cemetery, the other half in Armenia.
Srabian says he was on board with Chardukian’s project from the start. The cemetery had no record of his father-in-law as a veteran, but because of one Girl Scout’s project now it does.
Kristen Sobaje’s mother, Elizabeth Manselian, is also a World War II veteran buried at Ararat Cemetery. It’s been a year since she died, and Sobaje is still sorting out memorabilia at the family’s home in Fresno.
“Now here’s my mom’s WAVES book. It’s got the anchor and it says WAVES right on here,” says Sobaje picking up an album of old photos. “So we’ll see what she’s got, what kind of treasures she has in here, pictures. It looks like she kept everything.”
She says Manselian often spoke of her service in the Navy’s volunteer program for women, called WAVES. Her job was to type reports of airmen who crashed their planes practicing landing on aircraft carriers. Before Chardukian’s project, Manselian’s grave also had no veteran’s marker.
This year, Marina Chardukian is once again volunteering to put out cloth flags, brand-new ones purchased from donations for her project. And this time, she and others know precisely where to place them, recognizing those who might otherwise have gone unnoticed on Veterans Day.