KILLEEN, Texas — Hundreds of people braved the cold, windy weather Saturday morning to spend their time volunteering at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, picking up more than 14,000 wreaths that had been laid on grave stones here.
“It’s certainly a grassroots effort, and you see generations come (to help) and it’s always so heartwarming to see the very, very young and the very, very old and how they all come together for this project,” Hilary Shine, a member of the organizing community for Wreaths for Vets and a co-founder of the organization, shared.
This is an annual tradition thanks to the efforts of Wreaths for Vets, a program organized by the Friends of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery.
Wreaths for Vets, which started in 2006, works with hundreds of volunteers to prepare and lay wreaths annually as part of a nationwide effort to remember the fallen by placing a wreath on each veteran’s grave for the holidays. Wreaths are prepared the Saturday before Thanksgiving, laid on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend and finally, retrieved the second Saturday of January.
Each event can see anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 volunteers.
“It’s one of those things where it’s become part of who we are, but it’s also a pledge to those who we pledge to serve,” Hilary explained. “You have all these service members who live in our community and more and more of them are retiring here. And so regardless of where you’re from, what generation of service you’ve been in, the community rallies every year to say, ‘We appreciate that service, and we respect and honor you.’”
Master Sgt. Bertha Horne, 48th Chemical Brigade, and Sgt. 1st Class Kasim Kennerly, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, both attended the wreath retrieval for the first time.
“We chose to come to this event for the support of the community,” Horne explained. “As the Audie Murphy Club here on Fort Cavazos, we’re big on supporting our community and we try to come out as much as we can for our community.” Kennerly agreed.
“It lets us continue to look over those that made the ultimate sacrifice before us,” he said, “and let them know that we still care and we’re here for them and we appreciate the path that they paved for us.”
However, physical help isn’t the only thing that keeps this event running.
“All of this is by donations; dollars, five dollars, ten dollars,” Jean Shine, founder and president of Wreaths for Vets, explained. “We do love the help, and we have to have the physical help to do this, but we need the financial help to be able to continue.”
Up until this year, the organization has used 18-wheeler truck trailers, with poles specially designed for the trailer that hold the wreaths. However, Jean says that this is no longer an option for them due to the amount of wreaths they have to store each year.
“We have been storing our wreaths in trailers for the 18-wheelers but, we can’t sustain that any longer. We’re going to have to build a building to be able to do this,” she said. “… We’re going to be having to raise that money for a building and we sure do need help. We would all truly appreciate it.”
Wreaths for Vets is a 501(c)3 non-profit with no paid employees. All donations go toward wreaths, bows, equipment, etc.
“We hope that this will continue for eternity,” Jean shared. “It’s a beautiful thing; it’s heartwarming. When you come out here, your heart just bursts in pride and in love for our country, our veterans, what they’ve done and what they’re doing every day. It’s just amazing.”