From the Homefront: ‘Never forget’ – Wreaths Across America

It was a day of remembrance in the midst of the holiday season. Thousands streamed into Arlington National Cemetery to place more than 240,000 wreaths on the headstones of the fallen. Coast Guard families joined about 70,000 volunteers to assist with Wreaths Across America Saturday.

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Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

It was a day of remembrance in the midst of the holiday season. Thousands streamed into Arlington National Cemetery to place more than 240,000 wreaths on the headstones of the fallen.

Coast Guard families joined about 70,000 volunteers to assist with Wreaths Across America Saturday.

Rick Neuhaus, who came to the event with his wife, Lt. Cmdr. Johna Rossetti-Neuhaus, their daughter Karwin and their infant son, said it was important to come as a family to pay their respects.

“We did it as a family to remind our kids to never forget and always remember the forgotten soldiers who have died for our freedom, and their families who struggled by their side to maintain their family during trying times,” he said.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.
Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

The event, in its 23rd year, is meant to remember the lives of those buried in Arlington, as well as in veterans’ cemeteries across the country.

For my daughter Grace, 11, and I, it was a way for us to spend the morning doing something positive for a community that matters so much to us.

It was a chance for both of us to stop and think about those whose final resting places we passed, and to talk about why such a place exists.

This was my daughter Grace’s first visit to Arlington. We found ourselves reading gravestones and talking about how long those buried lived, what service they joined, and where they were from.

“It is important to recognize them because some of them fought for us so that we could be free,” she said. “It was really breathtaking to see all those wreaths among all those peoples’ graves. That was a moment I will never forget.”

And that is exactly the intent of the event – never to forget. During the opening ceremony at the base of McClellan Gate, Wayne Hanson, Wreaths Across America board chairman, encouraged participants to take a moment to read the headstones and to say the names of those interred to keep their memories alive.

Grace Kimball, 11, lays a wreath in Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.
Grace Kimball, 11, lays a wreath in Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Shelley Kimball.

“Say that person’s name,” Hanson said. “Say it out loud, so it won’t be the last time.”

As Grace and I walked through the cemetery, we were astounded at the number of people arriving. The day begins with an opening ceremony, and then participants find their way to trucks parked along pathways throughout the cemetery. The wreaths are unloaded and handed off to those of us waiting to deliver them to their headstones.

Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America, said during the opening ceremony that volunteers’ time and donations have been the reason for the program’s success.

“We did this, and then the American people got under us with their spirit and lifted us up,” she said.

The nonprofit program receives no government funding. It survives through donations. After a brief worry that there would not be enough wreaths, every grave and the Columbarium in Arlington were covered.

Former Chief of Staff of the Army Ray Odierno said he was heartened by the number of volunteers who streamed into the cemetery to assist with the effort. He said it was a deep honor to see such a strong showing of volunteerism and honor for veterans.

“I can’t tell you what it means to me, a forever soldier, that so many people want to be here today,” Odierno said.

The Hoffman kids, from left Gabe, 5, Brock, 10, and Josie, 7, took a moment to pay their respects to fallen Coast Guardsman Nathan Bruckenthal. Photo courtesy of Joanie Hoffman.
The Hoffman kids, from left Gabe, 5, Brock, 10, and Josie, 7, took a moment to pay their respects to fallen Coast Guardsman Nathan Bruckenthal. Photo courtesy of Joanie Hoffman.

The Bauman family used the event as a reunion of sorts. They had been planning since seeing the wreaths last year to volunteer this year.

“My husband jumped on board and researched the best commute and even recruited a long lost friend, Dave Gomez, to join us for the morning, proving Coast Guard members truly are extended family,” Marci Bauman said.

Gomez placed a wreath on the grave of his great-uncle, Maj. Gen. Michael Burkhart, and the Bauman family also paid their respects.

“Seeing Dave place the wreath at his family’s grave increased the importance of this event for my kids,” Bauman said. “They took ownership and said Merry Christmas as they placed their wreaths.”

They also stopped by to check on their friend Lt. Cmdr. Dale Taylor’s grave. Taylor died in the CG-6535 mishap in Mobile, Alabama in 2012. Bauman said she ran into two other Coast Guard families doing the same.

The Greenwood family said they wanted to come help out because friends had told them it was a rewarding way to give honor and respect to those buried at Arlington.

“We feel like it is important to teach our children about their sacrifice and service,” said Jennifer Greenwood, who is an operations specialist in the Coast Guard Reserves. She and her husband, Andy, a lietutenant commander currently stationed at the Coast Guard’s Force Readiness Command, brought their three boys, Winston, 5, Wesley, 4, and Wallace, 23 months.

Wallace Greenwood, 23 months, helps carry wreaths. Photo credit Tami Stieger Photography.
Wallace Greenwood, 23 months, helps carry wreaths. Photo credit Tami Stieger Photography.

That was exactly what brought the Tickell family, who have made the outing a tradition. They brought their three boys, RJ, 8, Thomas, 11, and Chase, 13.

“I felt like it was important to go to honor and recognize those individuals who served our county. Many of them may no longer have close relatives alive who remember them, but by participating in Wreaths Across America we were able to pay our respects for their service,” Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Tickell, C-130J systems manager, said.

Taking part in the event is a way to show their sons the value of recognizing those who have passed before.

“We hope to teach our boys that they have inherited a great opportunity to live in a free country by the sacrifice of those that they honor on that day,” he said.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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