Nation’s Oldest City Honors Veterans
By Michael Isam
St. Augustine, Fla, (December 15, 2013) – “What a photo op” said a veteran to another. Before the second veteran answered, tears popped out at the corner of his eyes and his voice cracked when he replied “No, what a heart op” as he turned away and wept.
A crowd of more than 100 gathered for the 7th annual “Wreaths Across America” ceremony at the St. Augustine National Cemetery. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Sgt. Major (retired) Daniel Blackman, this was the second year that all 1218 graves were marked with a wreath.
“Raising funds for this ceremony is a 365 day job,” said Blackman. “The communities, veteran and civilian, really came together to make this a great success. I can’t thank them enough.”
The wreaths make quite a journey to the cemetery. Starting from Worcester Wreath in Maine, they make their way down the Atlantic coastline in an 18-wheeler which is met at the truck stop at I95 and CR206 in St. Johns County.
The shipment is then off-loaded by volunteers into a van provided by Two Men and A Truck and moved to a storage area until the morning of the ceremony. The wreaths are transported to the National Cemetery and unloaded by a cadre of volunteers. The ocean of green, dotted by patches of red, covering the entire walkway inside the cemetery is breathtaking.
Ceremonial wreaths dedicated to each branch of service and those servicemembers still listed as POW/MIA’s were brought forth to its place of honor. Dating back to the first ceremony held here, the tradition of inviting members, and family members, of that service to come forth and help with the placing of the wreath has brought closure to many decades-old open emotional wounds. Tears visibly flowed.
Cathy Heighter Vice Pres., Jacksonville Chapter Gold Star Mothers, was invited to place the first wreath. Heighter was followed by Major General Emmett Titshaw, Adjutant General of Florida, and County Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson. The general public was then invited to place wreaths. Men, women, and children moved to carry wreaths from the center walkways to honor the graves. Revolutionary soldiers and civilian reenactors were seen walking among the rows wreaths.
The ceremony ended with a detail firing volleys of salute to the fallen and departed, followed by the offering of “Taps” played on a solitary bugle.
The “Wreaths Across America” began in 1992 with 5000 wreaths donated by Morrill Worcester and Worcester Wreath Company. The wreaths were placed on a seldom visited section of Arlington National Cemetery. In 2005, the iconic photograph of snow covering the wreaths and the grounds went viral and the movement exploded.
In 2012, the 21st anniversary witnessed the placing of the one-millionth wreath since 1992. In total, 406,000 wreaths were placed; 105,000 at Arlington National Cemetery and 815 participating locations in all 50 states and at national veterans’ cemeteries on foreign soil.
Beginning in 2008, and each year since, Congress has issued a proclamation officially recognizing “Wreaths Across America Day” each December. The official day is the second Saturday.