FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- "We are here to remember our fallen, to honor them and we are here to teach our children that our freedom is never free," said Judy Carlile to the nearly 400 people gathered Dec. 11 at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery's new assembly area.

"It is our mission and I am not going to stop until we cover this entire cemetery with Christmas wreaths. I need your help to do that," Carlile continued as her audience clapped, cheered, waved flags and shed tears.

Supported by volunteers from veteran, military and civilian groups, Carlile led this year's effort to lay the green garlands festooned with bright red bows at 2,610 headstones, nearly six times the number of wreaths placed last year.

Currently, there are more than 100,000 headstones at the cemetery. The number changes daily.

"The crowd has nearly doubled from last year," said 1st Lt. Mark Richardson, commander of the Civil Air Patrol Lackland Cadet Squadron. Richardson, who said he was also active duty Air Force, had trouble holding back his tears as he spoke.

He felt he had a deep connection with those who have lost loved ones, though fortunately none of his Family is interred here. He said volunteering for this project was the right thing to do.

The Civil Air Patrol cadets acted as color guard, folded the U.S. flag for the ceremony, and joined the other groups to lay wreaths.

The two-year old Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery wreath-laying project is part of the Wreaths Across America™ campaign, a national project begun at the Arlington National Cemetery in 1992.

During the ceremony, a wreath representing each service was brought forward escorted by Gold Star and Blue Star mothers and wives. The Gold Star and Blue Star mothers and wives were also recognized and presented with a special wreath of red, white and blue flowers.

"My husband served on active duty for 28 years. The Army was his life and he gave his life for this great nation," said Donna Engeman. Her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Engeman, was killed southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Engeman is an Army veteran herself.

"I never, ever want anybody to forget him or any other brave men and women we have lost. It means so much that people understand and when you say thank you," she said. "Thank you for saying that. It's all we ask for."

Kathy Donohoe's son, Sgt. Brandon Donohoe, recently returned from Afghanistan, but said her work with the Blue Star Mothers continues.

"The troops need to know we support them," she said, while tearing up. "They need to know we are there."

Engeman and Donohoe rode to the ceremony with the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle and motor vehicle group with more than 65,000 members nationally, dedicated to patriotic events.

The group has many veterans among its ranks.

"My husband participates with the Patriot Guard Riders and feels strongly about supporting those Families who have lost Soldiers," Donohoe said.

"This gathering is just one step that shows this community loves the military, what they represent and done," said San Antonio City Councilman John Clamp (Dist. 10). "Most importantly, for the kids here, it's about the future and preservation of what we have as the United States of America and all that represents."

"I think this is the most important thing this community and our Families can do," Clamp said. "Without the military, without their strength, their sacrifices, I know first hand that the United States of America, our city, our state would be so much different."

Clamp's father and brother served in the military.

"It is now my responsibility to honor my son by representing him at these events," said Gold Star Mother Alice Babine. "Teaching our children that freedom is not free and understanding that [those who lost their lives] were just like you and me. They were members of a Family and they left that family behind.

"They were real people, not just a name or statistic," she said between sobs. "The Families help people connect with the price, the sacrifice that has been made."

Lisa Christenson grew up in an Air Force Family. Her dad was a pilot who flew five missions in Vietnam and she remembers the taunting her Family received when she was a child.

"America wasn't too happy with the Vietnam War. We were cussed at and spit on," she said in tears, recalling the insults delivered by protesters at the gate of the base where her Family lived. Christenson said the experience caused her to commit to welcoming returning warriors and honoring veterans.

After the ceremony, the crowd dispersed to collect wreaths and place them at their assigned areas. Volunteers placing the wreaths were urged to note the name of the fallen on the headstone and then research what he or she had done for the country and for their fellow Americans.

"It's a Family thing. We get together to help out," said Merlene Salman, whose brother and father retired from a career with the Army."

Salman said it was important for the children to participate in the ceremony and wreath laying. "They might have to pay for their freedom later on."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16