By Franklin Fisher (Benning)December 17, 2018
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Dec. 15, 2018) - Fort Benning honored the memory of the nation's military veterans Dec. 15 with a wreath-laying ceremony that marked the first time the post has taken part in National Wreaths Across America Day.
The event, observed at memorial sites nationwide and elsewhere on the third Saturday in December, is organized by the non-profit Wreaths Across America, whose core theme is "Remember our fallen U.S. veterans, Honor those who serve, Teach your children the value of freedom."
Fort Benning's ceremony, on a chilly, overcast afternoon, drew several hundred people - including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, veterans, and others - to the Main Post Cemetery, where the ceremony began at a small, open-air pavilion.
All of the day's ceremonies were timed to start at noon in their respective time zones, the master of ceremonies, retired Army Col. Richard H. White, told the audience. White's long Army career included service in Vietnam.
During opening remarks, White read a statement issued by Wreaths Across America, one that was being read at all of the day's Wreaths Across America Day ceremonies, he said.
"The freedoms we enjoy today have not come without a price," White read to the audience.
"Laying here before us in cemeteries throughout this nation, are men and women who gave their lives so that we can live in freedom, without fear. We can worship as we see fit. We can raise our children to believe as we do. We can travel from one end of this great nation to the other, and not ask for permission to go. We are free to vote for whomever we feel should be in government offices, with no explanation needed..."
The audience also heard brief remarks from the keynote speaker, Joseph L. Galloway, a veteran war correspondent and author. Galloway covered the war in Vietnam for United Press International, and is co-author with the late Lt. Gen. Harold G. "Hal" Moore, of "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young." Moore is buried at Fort Benning's Main Post Cemetery.
"We come here today to honor them and offer a salute and thank them for all they have given our country and will continue to give our country in service...," said Galloway. "Walk through these places," Galloway told the audience, "and say hello to all our friends."
His remarks were followed by the placing of wreaths at the front of the pavilion in memory of those who have served or are serving, in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, and, White said, of the 93,129 U.S. service members whose last known status was that of Prisoner of War or Missing in Action.
Those POWs and MIAs, said White, "have never returned to their families and homes. We will never forget you."
"We encourage every volunteer here today to place wreaths on a veteran's grave," White said, "to say that veteran's name aloud, and take a moment to thank them for their service to our country. It is a small act that goes a long way toward keeping the memory of our veterans alive. Remember, we are not here today to decorate graves," White said. "We are here to remember not their deaths but their lives. Each wreath is a gift of appreciation from a very grateful nation."
Volunteers then spread out among the burial area and placed green wreaths adorned with red ribbons against many of the white headstones.
Among those attending the cemetery was 14-year-old Sean Bates, wearing his Boy Scout uniform. He's a member of local troop 27.
Asked after the ceremony what he took to be its main purpose, Bates said, "We're all here to respect those who have fallen in the name of our freedom."
Fort Benning's participation in Wreaths Across America Day came while Shirley Jerman, a Georgia resident and widow of an American Soldier buried at Fort Benning, was traveling outside Georgia. During her trip she encountered a woman working to enlist support for observance of Wreaths Across America Day at Fort Mitchell National Cemetery in Alabama.
Jerman learned from the woman that Fort Benning too could hold such ceremonies, if volunteers could be found to organize them.
"I just said, 'You know what? It's a great cause,'" said Jerman. "I am a widow and my husband is buried at Fort Benning. It's personal for me, but it's personal for everybody that's buried at that cemetery."
Jerman is now the volunteer local coordinator for the Wreaths Across America ceremonies at Fort Benning.
As veterans die and their loved ones also die, said Jerman, the ceremonies play an important role in helping see veterans continue to be honored.
"When you reach a certain point," she said, "there just aren't people bringing them flowers anymore."