Looking Back:Thousands of wreaths laid on veteran’s graves at Fort Mitchell cemetery
This holiday season should be unlike any other at Fort Benning’s Main Post Cemetery as an effort to launch the Wreaths Across America program at the hallowed location in Georgia joins that at nearby Fort Mitchell National Cemetery in Alabama.
“This is the first time at Fort Benning. This is the post’s 100th-year centennial and what a way to go out,” Shirley Jerman, organizer of the Main Post Cemetery effort, said Thursday.
The Columbus resident, wife of the late retired Sgt. 1st Class James Jerman, who is buried at Fort Benning, said despite getting a late start on this year’s Wreaths Across America event, which takes place at noon Saturday at more than 1,400 cemeteries, it should be pretty special.
The eventual goal, of course, is to have a wreath — either purchased by individuals or sponsored through groups and businesses — on each of the nearly 7,800 headstones at the Fort Benning cemetery.
“It’s difficult in your first year. I was counting on maybe 200 and I’m competitive, so I kept thinking, well maybe 500. We actually right now have 1,096 that have been sponsored,” Jerman said. “Our cutoff date was Dec. 3. They have to have a cutoff because they’ve got to ship the wreath. They come from Maine and they’re actually live balsam fir wreaths.”
Wreaths Across America was launched in 1992, with a Maine wreath-making company donating excess wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Fort Mitchell National Cemetery began participating in the holiday effort several years ago, said Todd Newkirk, assistant director of the Alabama cemetery that has about 9,500 headstones.
Three years ago, there were about 2,400 wreaths placed at Fort Mitchell, followed by about 4,800 last year. The cemetery is expecting around 7,800 wreaths this year for its noon Saturday ceremony, which will be followed by an estimated 1,000 volunteers fanning out on amid the vast cemetery to lay the fresh greenery with red bows at the headstones.
“It’s a beautiful time of the year to come out there and see the wreaths on all the headstones,” said Newkirk, noting the primary sponsor for his cemetery is the Civil Air Patrol out of Auburn, Ala., with local Veterans of Foreign Wars members also involved.
“The people who have sponsored a wreath specifically for a grave show up before noon, pick up their wreath, and they have a little private time to go out there and place the wreath and pay respects to their loved one,” he said.
Jerman said she looked at the participation Fort Mitchell National Cemetery was having and basically felt that she could get things rolling at Fort Benning’s Main Post Cemetery. She has lined up well-known war correspondent, newspaper columnist and author Joe Galloway as the speaker for the noon Saturday ceremony.
Galloway has a strong connection to the cemetery, with retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley buried there. The three were at the famed November 1965 Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam, a fierce fight depicted in the 2002 movie, “We Were Soldiers,” which starred Mel Gibson as Moore, Sam Elliott as Plumley and Barry Pepper as correspondent Galloway. Plumley died in 2012 and Moore in 2017.
“I am expecting a really good sized crowd,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of requests to be a volunteer. We have groups coming as well. I don’t know, but I personally think we’re going to do more than most people think we are.”
She noted some have asked if they can bring their own wreath and lay it at a headstone. The simple answer is no.
“That defeats the purpose of doing this,” she said. “It’s not just laying the wreaths, it’s all that’s behind it. Wreaths Across America, their hopes are to remember, honor and teach. Remember the fallen, honor those who have served or are currently serving and their families, and teach the younger generation the value of freedom.”
Jerman, who lost her husband in 2006, said she fully expects participation in Wreaths Across America to blossom at Fort Benning’s cemetery in the coming years, just as it has at Fort Mitchell. It will take more and more individuals purchasing the $15 wreaths, as well as fund-raising groups taking action and corporate donations contributing from area businesses who realize the sacrifice that military people provide to our nation.
“There’s more to it than just laying the wreath,” she said. “We encourage the volunteers that are laying wreaths to actually pay attention to the person that they’re laying it on, and say that person’s name out loud. It’s a really heartwarming experience.”
Those wishing to take part in Wreaths Across America should visit its website at www.wreathsacrossamerica.org. Those wishing to contact Jerman about the Main Post Cemetery effort and how to get involved with a support group or volunteer to lay wreaths should email her at email@example.com.
National Wreaths Across America Day takes place the third Saturday of December each year.