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A view from amongst the flags in the Field of Honor, at Mission San Juan Capistrano. (All photos courtesy of Jeff Perkin)

Memorial Day at Mission San Juan Capistrano

Portals of the past open up to Homefront America’s Field of Honor, at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

It is only fitting that a mission founded in 1776 was chosen this past Memorial Day to honor American military members, veterans, and first responders. With nearly 400 American flags on display at Mission San Juan Capistrano in Southern California, Field of Honor was a solemn tribute expressing gratitude to the heroes who have served our country. Homefront America, an all-volunteer 501c3 military outreach and support organization, created the event as a way to celebrate America’s service members and raise awareness about the organization’s efforts in providing year-round programs to enhance the quality of life for military families.

Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt

Flags are adorned with cards that remember and honor loved ones who served America; pictured is a flag celebrating all of America’s active-duty military, veterans, and first responders.

A large, beautiful courtyard at the heart of the mission was the temporary home for hundreds of flags adorned with loving messages of remembrance and gratitude from friends and family. As visitors read these heartfelt messages and stories, they are given the opportunity to see beyond the flowing rows of colored cloth, to what they truly represent—men and women who put their lives on the line in service of their country.

Mamie Maywhort, founder of Homefront America, proudly said of the event: “It’s all about the flags and the incredible stories behind the flags. Each and every one of those heroes has a significant meaning to me.” Taking in the diverse pictures and stories on each flag, we can see that a common thread of service and devotion stands guard to protect the essence of America and the principles that make the nation great.

No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.
—St. Ambrose

Acjachemen descendant Michael Gastelum takes part in the mission’s oldest tradition, a rare ringing of the bells.

On the opening day, May 26, 2021, several veterans who had served abroad in the Korean War and Vietnam were guests of honor, celebrating this first-time event at the mission. In a rare tribute, the misson’s bells were loudly sounded to honor all of America’s service members, past and present. The ringing of the bells is the mission’s oldest tradition and has only ever been performed by a chosen few. Michael Gastelum, a descendant of Native American ancestors from the valley’s Acjachemen tribe, powerfully pulled on two ropes, reverberating the bell’s resounding music throughout the mission for over a minute.

Mission Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence-Adams poses with her father and other veterans, including Adam Maywhort of Homefront America and Michael Gastelum (center), after the ringing of the bells.

The community was invited to sponsor individual flags with donations ranging from $50 to $1,000. Mission San Juan Capistrano Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence-Adams said: “This new project and partnership strikes at the heartstrings of what makes the mission so meaningful to people of all faiths, backgrounds, and journeys. To see hundreds of American flags beautifully displayed, each representing an actual person who has served our country, should be pure awe […] the entire mission team is truly excited to celebrate our military, and can’t wait to experience the visual and emotional effect of this meaningful project.”

The first flag at the mission was installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

This Memorial Day saw an America deeply divided along a number of polarizing lines. The many flags that were on display offered the hope that red and blue can continue to be woven together into one American whole. The identity that transcends all colors is the unifying idea of America. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.” Memorial Day offers Americans the opportunity to honor those who took responsibility and paid the ultimate price for freedom. It is also a reminder of the responsibility all Americans share to vigilantly protect the rights and principles on which America was founded.

The historic setting of Mission San Juan Capistrano helps us look back to a time before screens and the incessant, 24-hour cable news cycle. America has always had its challenges, but it has also been home to incredible human beings willing to fight to preserve the nation’s best qualities. The flag reminds us of the blood that has been spilled in the name of “a new constellation” founded “by the people, and for the people.”

The first flag hangs on one of the mission’s 18th-century walls, near the famed bells.

True patriotism is not about blind allegiance to our leaders, but requires carefully watching them with a critical eye to discern whether or not they are serving and upholding our constitutional rights. Our heartfelt thanks go out to all those who work diligently to preserve and protect the essence of America.

Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.
—Mark Twain

Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at