Wreaths of remembrance

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Putting up a wreath may not sound like an extraordinary task, but collectively Wreaths Across America makes a significant statement.

Thousands of people from military groups, clubs and individual parties across west central Florida gathered at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell Saturday to lay evergreen wreaths on 27,000 veteran’s graves as a symbol of respect and thanks.

“This is by far the largest Wreaths Across America group I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been doing this since its inception,” Florida National Cemetery Executive Director Roderick Thomas said.

For many, like Sue Hamburg of the Ladies of the Elks West Citrus in Homosassa, it was a family affair. Sue, her daughter Cristin and granddaughter Emily made the trek to Bushnell to place a wreath on the grave of Sue’s late husband Thomas.

 “My husband passed away last year,” Sue said. “I was at Wreaths Across America the Christmas before he passed and I had never been, but he was too sick to come. I told him, ‘Next year you’re coming. I don’t care if you’re in a wheelchair.’ Well, he didn’t make it. And it broke my heart that he never got to see this, because he was very passionate about being in the Air Force and his country.”

Sue decided to help the efforts of Wreaths Across America, the company that orchestrates the national holiday wreath placement at VA national cemeteries and state veterans cemeteries, in tribute to her late husband.

“I just had a passion myself to do it,” Sue said.

Sue rallied the Ladies of the Elks to start a fundraiser, asking for donations for the wreaths.

“This year I decided to do it full guns and really get it going,” Sue said. “We advertised in the paper and then we were able to sit in at different functions. We sat at the Homosassa Seafood Festival and took donations. We got quite a bit of donations there and then we got a donation from the Homosassa Civic Association. That was a big boost.”

Cost per wreath was a $15 donation. The Ladies were able to collect donations for 162 wreaths.  

“And we get money back for each wreath donated and then that money will be applied to organizations that we donate to,” Sue said.

Fifteen Ladies of the Elks were present Saturday to help place wreaths with Sue and her family. The wreath placement was followed by a remembrance ceremony hosted by the U.S. Military Vets Motorcycle Club honoring veterans of each branch of the military, the Merchant Marines, as well as prisoners of war and those still missing in action (POW/MIA).

“It’s just such a beautiful thing to see,” Sue said. “This is always a tough time for families that have lost a loved one.”

Parties that donated could request specific grave placement for family members and friends. Participants placing wreaths were encouraged to say the name of the veteran twice – once to remember, and once to thank them.

“Say their names -- don’t let them be forgotten,” American Gold Star Mother Annette Kirk said at the event’s remembrance ceremony.

Of the 100,000 graves at the Florida National Cemetery, 27,000 were able to have wreaths placed Saturday through the Wreaths Across America project.

“There are so many graves that don’t get wreaths,” Sue said. “People think ‘Oh they’ve got plenty.’ No. They do a lot of funerals every day here.”

Each year the Wreaths Across America program counts on donations from everyday people. Saturday’s participation increased significantly from previous years, drawing in thousands of participants. The first Wreaths Across America event in Bushnell only placed 88 wreaths.

“These wreaths that we placed today, they’re placed to remember these people’s lives,” Florida National Cemetery Wreaths Across America Coordinator Randy ‘Flanker' Lewer said.