HAMPTON, Virginia -- Soldiers from the 689th Rapid Port Opening Element, 832nd Transportation Battalion, 597th Transportation Brigade, gave of their time to honor the thousands of men and women who are interred in the Hampton National Cemetery, Saturday.
What began as a handful of individuals working in rain and heavy fog unloading trucks filled with pine decorations, soon turned into hundreds and hundreds of service members, civilians and children working side by side to carry out the "Wreaths Across America" yearly mission of remembering, honoring and teaching of the sacrifices America's men and women in uniform have made.
Although everyone had their own reason for being there and giving part of their valuable weekend to stand in the cold and rain, there was a common theme that echoed time and time again - they came to say thank you.
"Hampton is a wonderful community. Not just in terms of a great place to live, but also for the support they provide to our Soldiers," said First Sgt. Marcos Rodriguez, First Sergeant for the 689th RPOE. "Joining hands with those living on the peninsula at such an important event encourages our Soldiers to become an integral part of the community while also giving them the opportunity to honor others who have served."
The first Hampton military burial took place on the grounds in 1862, one year after the start of the war to end slavery -- the Civil War.
The cemetery encompasses 27.1 acres and has more than 30,000 service members and family members interred.
"Standing in this cemetery, I feel like I am among family," Rodriquez said. "In fact, we are brothers in arms."
Rodriguez, himself, has two combat deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.
"When I look across this field of stones, I don't see grave markers -- I see people," said Rodriquez. "And if I could speak to them today, I would say thank you. Thank you for safeguarding and providing the freedom that my family and I enjoy each and every day."
Some Soldiers gave of their day simply to remember friends.
"I came out today to show my appreciation to all the fallen and to let them know that they are not forgotten during this holiday season. I am both a mother and Soldier, and have deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan," said Staff Sgt. Cristina Ross, 689th RPOE. "I've endured having good friends killed in combat, so coming here is my way of showing my appreciation for all that they have done and to remind them that they are not forgotten."
One by one, carefully placing a green wreath trimmed with a large red bow atop rows of headstones is 689th Soldier, Staff Sgt. John Kennerson. He pauses briefly at each marker, says aloud the name carved into the white granite before moving on to the next.
Kennerson is a man with three combat tours to Iraq, two to Afghanistan and one to Kuwait...and is a "Gold Star Father". He lost his son, Army Spec. Kevin Kennerson, in service to his nation four years ago at the age of 21.
"This is my way to tell Kevin that I love him and to show him my appreciation for his military service and the sacrifices that he and so many others have given for the freedoms we enjoy," said Kennerson. "If I could hold my son one more time, I would say thank you for your sacrifice and that I could not be more proud of you."
NOTE: Wreaths Across America is a 501c3 organization who with the help of volunteers annually honors America's fallen at national cemeteries across America.