“This is the first chance I’ve had to volunteer to lay the Coast Guard wreath,” Petty Officer First Class Scott Calhoon, US Coast Guard, stated at a chilly Wreaths Across America (WAA) event last Saturday, December 17.
Scott is an 18-year active military service member with 14 years in the Coast Guard preceded by four years in the Air Force. He, with seven others, laid wreaths for the military branches: US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Space Force, and Coast Guard; plus, a wreath for the Merchant Marines and a wreath for Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action (POW/MIA).
Veterans’ wreaths, not Christmas wreaths
In a ceremony, military members and veterans placed eight wreaths at the base of the Spanish-American War statue at Tumwater’s Masonic Memorial Park. Then, attendees walked the cemetery grounds to find and place wreaths on the gravestones of service members. The wreaths are not intended to be Christmas wreaths but veterans’ wreaths: 10 boughs of balsam tied with a red velveteen bow. In all, a group of 50 volunteers placed 90 wreaths throughout the park.
Jeni Swenson, organizer of the event, said, “We encourage every volunteer here today who places a wreath on a veteran’s grave to say that veteran’s name aloud and take a moment to thank them for their service to our country. It’s a small act that goes a long way toward keeping the memory of our veterans alive.”
Swenson also asked that attendees demonstrate thoughtfulness and avoid the Judaic-designated gravestones since the evergreen wreath may be considered by some as a symbol that pays homage to Christianity.
First event at Masonic Memorial Park
The day was a first not only for Petty Officer Calhoon but for the Masonic Memorial Park, Thurston County’s largest cemetery property. The park worked with a partner, Sacajawea Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), which provided volunteers to help fund, plan, and implement the event. The two organizations partner regularly. For example, in the last two years, they have restored and/or cleaned more than 800 of the 1,000 veteran gravestones at the cemetery. DAR volunteers work at the direction of the park staff.
Wreaths for the branches
Petty Officer Scott Calhoon specializes in vessel traffic control and explained that his branch, the US Coast Guard, is considered the sixth branch of the military. Previously under the Department of Transportation, it is now within the Department of Homeland Security. He said that he felt proud to lay a wreath for the Coast Guard, joining the other representatives.
Lieutenant Colonel Rachel Gonzales, US Marine Corps, laid a wreath for her branch, accompanied by a young friend Sophia; Captain Liz Dykstra, US Naval Reserves, laid a wreath for the US Navy. US Air Force veteran David Swenson laid a wreath for the US Air Force. US Marine Corps veteran Joe Coorough laid a wreath for the US Space Force. US Navy veteran Judi Hine laid a wreath for the US Merchant Marines. Navy Seal veteran Ron Frederick laid a wreath in honor of the 93,129 United States Servicemen and women from all branches of the service whose last known status was either Prisoner of War or Missing in Action. These individuals have never returned to their families and homes.
Partnership between DAR chapters and the Masonic Cemetery
Jeni Swenson is First Vice Regent of the Sacajawea Chapter of the DAR. She explained that this partnership was the brainchild of DAR Sacajawea Regent Mary Blake. Blake commented, “It only made sense to approach the Masonic Cemetery about this possibility as we have a wonderful working relationship with them.” The George Rogers Clark Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and DAR member Judi Hine provided the color guard with four flags and a musket. DAR member Bev York played the bagpipes. SAR color guard commander and outgoing chapter president Art Dolan placed a special wreath, to remember those SAR member veterans who have passed.
It all began with surplus wreaths
Wreaths Across America is a national nonprofit organization, with the mission to ‘Remember the fallen, Honor those that serve and their families, and teach the next generation the value of freedom.’
A surplus of 5,000 wreaths at the Worcester Wreath Company in Maine provided the impetus for this now well-established patriotic tradition. In 1992, Karen and Morrill Worcester enlisted the help of their U.S. senator to provide the 5,000 surplus wreaths to Arlington Cemetery. The idea took off and emerged as an annual commemoration.
Congress recognized National Wreath Across America Day in a unanimous vote in 2008. By 2012, WAA laid its one-millionth wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. In 2018, the founders of Wreaths Across America received the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s Patriot Award.
The National Wreath Across America Day is held on the second or third Saturday in December at Arlington National Cemetery and in over 3,400 locations across the US, at sea, and abroad.
As she ordered the colors to retire, Swenson stated, “Know that we are here today not to ‘decorate graves’ but to remember lives. Each wreath is a gift of appreciation from a grateful America.”
Shirley Stirling, of Lacey, is a member of the Sacajawea Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution and writes frequently for The JOLT.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that this was the first event of its kind in Thurston County. That was incorrect; Mills & Mills held one this year and has done so in previous years. We regret the error.
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