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DANVILLE — Kirk Melton was best friends with Tammy Williams, back when he was a physician’s assistant in the same hospital where she worked the emergency room.

When Melton passed in 2012, he was buried in Danville National Cemetery. He had served in the Army and Illinois National Guard, and was a member of the Vermilion County Rescue team.

That winter, Williams told his mother she’d come to visit and make sure everything’s OK. Volunteers were placing Christmas wreaths at the foot of veterans’ graves as part of the national Wreaths Across America event.

“I saw that he didn’t get a wreath, and thought ‘We need to figure this out,’” Williams said.

That was enough for Williams to become the local coordinator for Danville’s Wreaths Across America ceremony. She’s run every one since 2013, gathering nearby organizations and sponsors to help fund the cause.

When she started, they funded around 300 wreaths to display around the cemetery. Today, they fund thousands.

Early Saturday afternoon, hundreds of volunteers, supporters and military families laid down 2,100 Christmas wreaths in every section of the 12,000-grave Danville cemetery.

Danville National Cemetery celebrated its 13th year participating in Wreaths Across America, alongside another 3,100 locations nationwide that honored veterans through the wreath-laying ceremonies. The event’s nonprofit started from Maine businessman and wreath-weaver Morrill Worcester in 1992, who’s made the trip to Arlington National Cemetery every December since.

Saturday’s celebration in Danville began with remarks from state Rep. Mike Marron, state Sen. Scott Bennett and former state Sen. Paul Schimpf.

Bennett called it the “most special event across the state of Illinois,” that “kicks off the holiday season with the exact right view of what it means to have gratitude and appreciation and respect for the many things we’re thankful for.”

“Sometimes, it’s just not enough to say ‘thank you,’” said Schimpf, himself a former Marine and graduate of the Naval Academy who served as chief American advisor in the war trial of Saddam Hussein. “Sometimes, actions are required.”

More than a dozen ceremonial wreaths were brought to the foot of the Soldiers’ Monument in the center of the cemetery, honoring Army factions, designations and some of the veterans buried there.

The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard all received a wreath of recognition, as did victims of Agent Orange and PTSD. Lt. Col. Joseph Timberlake of the University of Illinois Air Force ROTC program brought a wreath for the U.S. Space Force.

Among the veterans honored: Army Spc. Justin Penrod of Mahomet and Army Cpl. Francis Trussel Jr., of Lincoln, who both died in Iraq in 2007; Sgt. Kenneth Nichols Jr., of Chrisman and Lance Cpl. Joshua Witsman, who died in Afghanistan in 2012; Marine Cpl. Todd Hawk, an Iraq war veteran who died in 2013; and Marine Tyler Wilson and Marine Sgt. Aaron Merrell, both Afghanistan veterans from Danville, who passed away in 2016 and 2015.

“I’ve had somebody ask me ‘why do we focus our attention on this?’” Williams said. “Because they’re gone, and we have a families who recently, as recently as five years ago, lost their loved ones, and that’s why I do it. I do it for the people who are still here.”

Taylor Morrison-Rothwell and her son, Isaac Rothwell, of Danville, laid the ceremonial wreath honoring the 82,000 military members whose last known status was MIA: Prisoner of War.

Her father, Delbert Morrison, served in the Gulf War, and her husband is a Marine.

“I loved that there were so many kids there, my son included,” she said. “He’s 3, and I want him to understand from a young age the things people have had to sacrifice for us.”

The Patriot Guard, American Legion Riders and Danville High School junior ROTC were among the volunteers and organizations helping run Saturday’s event.

JROTC member and Danville High senior Nicholas Fuentes has gone to Wreaths Across America event since he was in middle school. He helped walk up the ceremonial wreath for the Coast Guard.

Considering the event’s one-year hiatus due to COVID, he was thrilled at the day’s attendance. He only got to lay down a couple of wreaths with so many volunteers — laying them flat in front of the graves and saying their names out loud “to keep their memory alive.”

Coordinator Williams was surprised at the attendance, too. Considering her efforts helped fund nearly 6,000 wreaths in 2017, she hopes to rebound from COVID’s dropped fundraising.

Her work to fund next December’s event starts again in January. Maybe this time she’ll get enough to cover all 12,000 graves in the cemetery.

“Christmas time is tough, but Christmas knowing your loved one isn’t here anymore? I want to let our families know that we’re remembering their sacrifice,” she said.

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is esimmons@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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