Volunteers place wreaths on service members' graves

Volunteers place wreaths on service members' graves

DANVILLE — Rick Dailey Jr. choked up when he stood near the center of Danville National Cemetery late Saturday morning and took in the panoramic view of the 10,976 white headstones in neat rows.

He remembered visiting the cemetery with his father — Rick Sr., a Vietnam veteran — five years ago when volunteers laid Christmas wreaths at 30 graves.

This year, volunteers laid them at nearly 6,000 graves for Wreaths Across America Day.

"He would be very proud," the younger Dailey said of his father, who until his Sept. 30 death served as senior ride captain of the Illinois Patriot Guard Riders Region 4 and worked tirelessly to honor veterans and help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It was a big dream of my dad's to see a wreath placed at every grave at Christmastime. We're more than halfway there."

This is the 12th year the Danville cemetery, at 1900 E. Main St., has participated in the tribute. It started in 1992, when Morrill Worcester, founder of the Worcester Wreath Company in Maine, sent surplus wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery to be placed at the graves of military servicemen and women.

Each year, the effort has grown. And on Saturday, wreath-laying ceremonies were held in more than 1,200 locations in all 50 states, at sea and at U.S. cemeteries abroad.

This year, volunteers throughout central Illinois raised a record amount of donations, said Tammy Williams, the local coordinator for the past four years.

"This year, we raised enough to lay 5,928 wreaths," said Williams, who took over the effort that was started locally by the Elks Lodge.

That's up from 2,907 in 2016, 798 in 2015, 364 in 2014 and 184 in 2013.

"The last four years, it's just really exploded thanks to community support," said Williams, who again partnered with the Patriot Guard Riders, American Legion Riders and a number of other organizations to boost donations. "Not every grave will be decorated, but we'll have wreaths in every section."

By 11 a.m., hundreds of volunteers had gathered around the Soldiers Monument in the center of cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony, which started with a fly-over by a local pilot.

Illinois Sen. Scott Bennett told the crowd it's important to remember and honor our nation's veterans and military servicemen and women, who served and are serving in combat and at home.

But some continue to battle the effects of war long after they've returned home, Bennett said. They suffer from PTSD and other mental health issues, often in silence, which contributes to this staggering statistic — 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

"We have an obligation to be there for them, as they have always been there for us," said Bennett, who urged everyone to acknowledge that "the war at home" is real, to call for and support efforts to help them and to reach out to those who are suffering.

"Most of all, remind them they have a friend in you," he said. "You just may save a life."

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Next, wreaths were laid for all branches of the military, POW and MIA servicemen and women and local service members who were killed in action.

They included: Spc. Charles Lamb, killed in Iraq on Sept. 5, 2004; Sgt. Jessica Cawvey, killed in Iraq on Oct. 6, 2004; Army Spc. Francis Trussell Jr., killed in Iraq on May 26, 2007; Army Spc. Justin O. Penrod, killed in Iraq on Aug. 11, 2007; Sgt. Seth Allen Miller, killed in Germany on April 14, 2008; Army Maj. David Audo, killed in Afghanistan on Oct. 27, 2009; Army Sgt. Kenneth Nichols Jr., killed in Afghanistan on Dec. 1, 2009; Lance Cpl. Joshua Witsman; killed in Afghanistan on May 30, 2012; and Zachary Partin, who died at Fort Hood, Texas, military base on Jan. 12.

Wreaths were also laid for decorated Marine veterans who suffered from PTSD — Cpl. Todd Hawk, a 2003 North Vermilion (Ind.) High School graduate; Cpl. Aaron Merrell, a 2008 Bismarck-Henning graduate; and Lance Cpl. Tyler Wilson, a 2005 Catlin High graduate — and others who continue to suffer.

After a gun salute, buglers Dailey and Jerry Limp played taps one after another, creating an echo effect, which brought tears to many in attendance.

Then volunteers fanned out and laid the balsam fir wreaths decorated with red ribbons on the graves along the entrance and in the "inner circle" — eight sections surrounding the monument — and several other sections.

They included members of the Westville High School honor society, Bismarck-Henning High School Key Club, Danville High School JROTC, North Ridge Middle School Builders Club members, the University of Illinois Air Force ROTC, VFW Auxiliary in Paris, Danville Jaycees, Lynch and Bismarck-Henning fire protection districts and Girl and Boy Scouts, among others.

In a section just east of the Soldiers Monument, Cassie Flessner of Oakwood and her daughter, Makenzie, laid a wreath at the foot of a tombstone.

"Thomas Cassidy," Flessner said, her fingers brushing the well-worn name.

Flessner told her daughter, a Danville Lutheran School student, that it's important to say the person's name to honor them.

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Eight-year-old Ava Spady of St. Joseph did just that as she, along with her 5-year-old sister, Stella, helped Stephanie Young, director of the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care Center, lay wreaths in a nearby section.

"William Waller Wright," Ava said. "Thank you for your service."

Air Force veteran Becky Low, the sergeant at arms of American Legion Post 610 in Oakwood and a Patriot Guard Rider, said she was overjoyed by the number of volunteers who turned out, and she was glad to see a number of children.

"We need the younger kids to realize what this is all about: the meaning of service and sacrifice and honoring those who have and are doing that now overseas and at home," she said, pointing out that the wreaths event also aims to teach the younger generations. "They can't be home for the holidays. They're serving ... so that we can and for all of our other freedoms."

Julia Wilson, mother of Lance Cpl. Wilson, said she was moved by the "outpouring of love and support" by the volunteers and those who made donations for the wreaths. She was especially moved to hear people speaking the veterans' names.

"That's the thing we as parents love. We don't want our children to be forgotten," said Wilson, who along with Jenny Merrell, Cpl. Merrell's mother, laid wreaths in memory of their sons.

The two, along with American Legion Post 210 in Danville, also work to raise funds for "Working it Out," a program Navy vet Merrell started to provide gym memberships to veterans returning to central Illinois, so that they can focus on their health.

Merrell is also excited about a program that's in development. It aims to provide for returning veterans for up to two years.

"They're constantly being checked on," she said.

For Dailey, Saturday's wreath-laying was bittersweet. His dad, who worked to raise money and awareness for PTSD and wreaths, passed away on Sept. 3 and was laid to rest at the cemetery in October.

"I'm very happy with the results these last two years," he said. "I'll be extremely happy when we've covered all 11,000. I do believe we'll be there in one or two more years."

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