KILLEEN, Texas — Honoring every veteran laid to rest here at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, 12 people gathered in 2007 to place a wreath on the 394 veteran graves. Thirteen years later, Fort Hood leaders, Gold Star families and members of the community honored the more than 11,000 veterans who are currently laid to rest at the cemetery Saturday during the 14th annual Wreaths for Vets wreath-laying ceremony.
“We make sure that every veteran laid to rest is honored every holiday season,” Hilary Shine, volunteer and emcee, told the audience about the annual event.
Recalling how it all began, Jean Shine, founder and president of Wreaths for Vets and the Friends of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, said the whole thing was completely God-led from day one, Dec. 15, 2007, when she found out Wreaths Across America only sent six wreaths to the cemetery. She was determined to put a wreath on every single grave, so after calling around and realizing nobody local had any wreaths at such a late notice, she jumped into her van and headed to Austin, where she hoped she could find some at a warehouse.
“They said, ‘You can dig around and see if you can find anymore.’ I did and found just enough wreaths,” Shine said. “Even more-so, they had a half-price sale and they were the perfect size and I didn’t know that when I bought them.”
Excited about finding the wreaths, she drove to Walmart after she got home in the middle of the night and asked if they had any bows. They had 400 red bows.
“What I did not know is they were the perfect size. And what I did not know is they gave me a discount when they found out what I was doing,” she added. “The whole project has been blessed from day one. It was the right thing to do and our whole community has loved it.”
With 12 volunteers to help her that first year, Shine’s determination paid off with a wreath at every grave. The following year, she created the non-profit Friends of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, which fundraises and organizes Wreaths for Vets. This year, hundreds of volunteers prepared the wreaths on Nov. 21 in preparation for Saturday’s wreath-laying. Despite the bad weather forecast Saturday morning, Shine estimated between 1,000 to 2,000 volunteers braved the elements to honor the fallen.
“It’s just so heart-warming and so loving. They do it with heart and love,” Shine said about the volunteers. “Each grave has a story and each person that laid a wreath sat there and said a prayer as they read the name on the tombstone and it was just beautiful.”
Lt. Gen. Pat White, III Corps and Fort Hood commanding general, placed the first wreath, followed by the command staff, who all placed wreaths at the Fort Hood monuments at the cemetery.
“It’s important that we never forget those who sacrificed everything,” Command Sgt. Maj. Cliff Burgoyne, III Corps and Fort Hood command sergeant major, said, “and that we never forget those families who went through this.”
Remembering the Soldiers who have passed, Burgoyne said when he placed the wreath, he recalled the personal connections he has made throughout his Army career and knows he will never forget a single Soldier. He said he believes people serve because they know the Army will care for their families and when their time is over, they will never be forgotten.
“These are the people who have given the last full measure after protecting and defending our way of life,” Col. Howard Matthew, 1st Cavalry Division staff judge advocate, said while laying a wreath at a grave. “To honor that is one of the most important things we can do because in honoring what they’ve done before us, it inspires us to do what we need to do in the future.”
Diane Campbell, a Copperas Cove volunteer with Wreaths for Vets, helped raise money for the wreaths and said the support they receive each year is amazing. While the cemetery is located in Killeen, Campbell said the wreath-laying has really grown into a Central Texas community project.
“This community, this state, is extremely patriotic. We understand the sacrifices. We know, we have seen and have experienced the sacrifices our military has made,” Shine added. “It’s our way of letting them know how much we appreciate them, we honor and we’ll always remember that it’s because of them that we live in this wonderful country and we will never forget that. Every person there standing side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder feels the exact same way.”
Shine said the wreaths are placed at the graves annually on the Saturday proceeding Thanksgiving, to allow out-of-state visitors the opportunity to experience the event. The wreaths will be retrieved on the second Saturday of January. For more information about Wreaths for Vets, visit www.wreathsforvets.org and follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WreathsForVets.