The Veterans Council of St. Johns County is currently raising funds for its annual Wreaths Across America drive. The efforts conclude Dec. 16 with volunteers honoring veterans by placing remembrance wreaths on the gravestones of fallen military personnel at the St. Augustine National Cemetery at noon.
The council’s goal is to raise enough money to place wreaths on more than 1,200 gravesites in the cemetery. Individual wreaths are $15.00, but for each two wreaths purchased, the council receives a third wreath without charge.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Ray Quinn, a chairman of the local Wreaths Across America project for four years, said the overall event was founded by a Maine resident working in the Christmas tree business who had a large quantity of leftover holiday wreaths.
In 1992, Morrill Worcester of Worcester Wreath Company realized he wanted to honor U.S. military veterans with the extra wreaths by placing them at Arlington National Cemetery. With the help of Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, Worcester transported the wreaths on a convoy to the cemetery during the holidays, and that single act became a nationwide event in which volunteers have converged each year at hundreds of locations across America to pay their respects.
"It's quite an honor just to place a wreath and honor one of our fallen veterans," Quinn said. "When I observe the people of our community that come out to the wreath laying ceremony, it's such a touching event.
"One sweet lady told me that she lost her brother in the Korean War, and his remains were never returned, so for her—it's like honoring her brother," he added.
For Dick Williams, a Ponte Vedra resident and volunteer for Wreaths Across America, the Veterans Council project is an opportunity to honor fallen military personnel alongside members of his community. Williams shared the wreath-laying project with members of the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach to promote the event.
"I figured if I wasn't aware of it, I was sure others in my community didn't know about it as well," Williams noted.
The ceremony is moving, Williams said, because members of the community, including youth groups, get involved each year.
"It’s a wonderful opportunity for children, middle schoolers and high schoolers to be able to honor and maybe even learn a little more about what our service men and women have done," he said.
Williams is promoting the council and campaign to help raise enough money to purchase the necessary number of wreaths for the ceremony. He also feels an extra pull to honor and work with veterans to make sure local and federal government agencies are responsive to their needs.
For those interested in donating to the project, checks should be made payable to Wreathes Across America and mailed to Veterans Council of St. Johns County, P. O. Box 2117, St. Augustine, FL 32085-2117.
Appreciation for veterans in America
According to Quinn, there has been a "resurgence of appreciation" for veterans since the 2002 Iraq invasion. However, the retired sergeant major said that NFL players using the American flag and the national anthem as a platform for protest constitutes a “measure of disrespect.”
"It's my opinion and not that of the Veterans Council or Wreaths Across America," Quinn prefaced. "I feel that it is a measure of disrespect, what we've seen in the NFL. There are forums to get your message across but during a period of time when we're recognizing our nation and our sacrifices that the flag represents, what we've seen is not the time to do that."
Although Quinn is critical of the NFL’s recent anthem protests, he said there’s been a positive change in the perception of veterans since the Vietnam War, and a majority of Americans appreciate their service.
Quinn asserted that the Wreaths Across America project is beneficial for veterans and the community because it’s an opportunity for people to learn about history and appreciate the sacrifices of U.S. military personnel.
"I think part of the motto of Wreaths Across America is to learn and to teach," Quinn added.
Anyone can participate in the Dec. 16 Wreaths Across America event at the St. Augustine National Cemetery; there is no sign-up required.
The theme of this year's event is #I'mAnAmericanYesIAm. To learn more about Wreaths Across America, visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org.