Wreaths Across America is a national program that honors veterans with a mission of Remember, Honor, and Teach. The mission is carried out in part by the laying of wreaths on the graves of veterans throughout the 50 states and beyond.
Maine businessman Morrill Worcester started laying the wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery in 1992. To continue and expand his efforts, the organization earned non-profit status in 2007.
Many American Legion posts throughout the country participate in this annual program. For most of them, it involves a single Federal cemetery which makes the logistics of locating the graves and laying the actual wreaths fairly simple.
That was not the case for Post 109 in Hartwell, Ga., commanded by William Blazek. Post 109's Vice Commander for Membership, Jerry Cleary, had previously participated in WAA when he was a commander of the Civil Air Patrol out of Peachtree-Dekalb Airport outside Atlanta.
Cleary, an Army veteran who joined the Post in January of last year, thought WAA would be good for Hartwell.
“I was involved in laying wreaths at the veterans cemetery in Canton (Georgia),” said Cleary. “It’s a tremendous program and I thought it would really put us on the map.”
Post 109 places crosses honoring veterans in the county and places American Flags on their graves as an annual service for Memorial Day.
“We typically do between 600 and 700,” said Post 109 Senior Vice Commander Bill Fogerty. “We had no idea when we started the wreaths the number would be more than double.”
After getting approval from the Post for financial support, Cleary and others set out to locate those nearly 700 veterans’ graves.
One of the first stops was the local newspaper. Cleary inquired about getting support from The Hartwell Sun. Peggy Vickery, the newspaper’s general manager, introduced Cleary to a book, Cemeteries of Hart County.
The information contained in the book, which was compiled by the Savannah River Valley Genealogical Society, included the name of the person, their born and died dates, which cemetery they were in and any additional comments such as military status. The list of cemeteries included both churches and family plots. It was a very useful starting point, but it was also a sign of just how difficult this mission would be.
“According to the book, there were 125 cemeteries in the county,” said Cleary. “And it only went up to 1989 so we still had 25 more years to cover.”
Using the information, a database was established by Post 109 member Chuck Thorne. Cleary said it took Thorne about three weeks to cover the entire contents.
To supplement the information gleaned from the book, members of Post 109 walked the graves in several of the larger cemeteries in the county, physically making identifications to expand the database.
Cleary said the church cemeteries weren’t too difficult because most of them had someone who knew of the veterans or a list was recorded somewhere in the church. It was the family plots that provided much more of challenge.
“They could be just a few headstones out in the middle of the woods,” said Cleary. “And, if the family had move away from the area, there just wasn’t much we could do.”
To further their efforts, members of Post 109 spoke at churches, civic organization meetings, and to pretty much anyone else who would listen to get the word out about the program. The Post also ran ads in The Hartwell Sun looking for people to sponsor the wreaths.
Overall, Cleary said they raised an estimated $23,000. It covered all the expenses as well as the cost of the wreaths. Along with raising money, the series of ads turned out to be a great method for increasing the list of veterans and, more importantly, the location of their graves.
"We got emails and calls from all over the country, California, Texas," said Cleary. "People said they read about it and wanted to tell us where their relative was a veteran and where they were buried.
While the search for names and graves proved to be a daunting task, getting the actual wreaths to Hartwell perhaps provided the biggest challenge.
Originally scheduled to arrive during the week leading up to the ceremony on Dec. 13, logistical problems between the Wreaths of America organization and the wreath maker forced a significant delay.
“At 4 p.m. on Friday, the wreaths were still in Connecticut,” said Cleary. The truck driver, a veteran himself, drove all night through a snowstorm. He was at Home Depot (in Hartwell) between 9:30 and 10 Saturday morning.
Cleary said the local Home Depot store manager, Jeff Meitz, allowed them to use the garden center as an unloading and storage point since the garden center area was largely empty due to the season.
“Jerry came to me asking for help in getting the wreath holders at a good price,” said Meitz. “He eventually found a place, but didn’t have an address to ship them to. At that point I said, ‘Why don’t we ship them here because we have a drive through. We can store them in the cages so trucks can just drive up and get them.”
With the help of the Golden K Club and other volunteers, the wreaths were unloaded. “We were able to get most of the graves covered at Nancy Hart before the ceremony,” said Cleary. “You could tell the wreaths were made late enough that they still had that sticky tar on them. They were fresh.”
Meitz said one of employees, a veteran named Bobby Bowen, took wreaths the next day to some of the cemeteries that didn’t get picked up.
On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon back in December, a substantial gathering of veterans, their families and friends, as well as state and local public officials, celebrated the coronation of Post 109’s efforts at Nancy Hart Memorial Park.
Following the ceremony, nearly 1,700 Hart County veterans’ graves were adorned with the wreaths in more than 100 cemeteries scattered across the county.
“The ceremony went great. The biggest pleasure for me was seeing the seven veterans representing each branch walk up, hang a wreath, and then salute it, said Cleary.
Along with the wreaths on the graves, an anchor monument was erected and two wreaths were placed near the Hartwell Dam, just north of the city.
“A woman told us she had two veterans who were lost at sea and asked us what we were going to do about them,” said Cleary. “Lake Hartwell flows into the Savannah River which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.”
The wreaths that represented the seven branches of service present at the ceremony were relocated to the Hart County court house lawn downtown for display.
Bethesda United Methodist Church and Liberty United Methodist Church each held wreath laying services the next day at their respective cemeteries. Both churches are pastored by Rev. Kathleen Degan-Neal. Her sermon that day incorporated the project’s mantra of Remember, Honor and Teach.
“Dwayne Dye, a member at Bethesda, had volunteered to determine the number of veterans buried in the church’s cemetery,” said Deegan Neal. “He then suggested we have our own ceremony on the Sunday after the big one. At Bethesda it was like a homecoming where you go out after the service and look at the families’ graves and fix the flowers. There were children and grandchildren running around. The images at both churches were just so powerful.”
Cleary said the biggest impact of the whole project was full page ad taken out in the newspaper the Thursday prior to the ceremony. With the headline Veteran’s Wall of Honor, every Hart County veteran accounted for was listed by the cemetery they were buried in.
“That really opened the flood gates,” said Cleary. “It was very emotional. We heard from a lot of people. It really touched many of the older guys.”
Cleary said because it was a work in progress, some names were inadvertently omitted. A subsequent ad was run the following week that included an apology and those missing names. Despite the omissions, the Post was happy with the results.
“It’s the first real database we have of veterans for Hart County,” said Fogerty. Cleary estimates there could be close to 2,500 veterans buried in Hart County so the search will continue. He said members will meet in the near future to discuss what went right and what needs to be improved. Getting more youth involved will definitely be a focus he said.
But for a first venture, Cleary was pretty satisfied.
“The support from the community was just tremendous,” said Cleary. “It’s something we will do every year. It’s that important.”