• Wreaths decorate cemetery to honor fallen

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  • Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
    Cpl. David Unger, Capt. Jeremy Chandler, 2nd Lt. Luke James, 1st Lt. Daren Hidalgo — these were four of several names of fallen service members spoken during the National Wreaths Across America Day observance Dec. 15 at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.
    Members of the crowd spoke their loved ones’ names aloud during the ceremony.
    “We are here today to honor our fallen heroes, remembering them by placing wreaths at individual gravesites and by being their witness,” said keynote speaker Konrad Tolai, cemetery director for Leavenworth, Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott, Kan., National Cemeteries. “These men and women, who fought for freedom and through their service and sacrifice, guaranteed our liberty and way of life.
    “At many sites across the country today, patriots like yourselves are gathered just as we are this morning to honor and bear witness for all of our fallen heroes,” he said. “It is our duty to remember the sacrifices of these brave men and women and to make certain that their (country’s) commitments to them and to their families are honored.”
    Tolai said the ceremony is a special one for the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery because it is one of the 14 original national cemeteries established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.
    “We trace our cemetery’s lineage to President Abraham Lincoln’s devotion to veterans of the Civil War and his steadfast belief that their service must be justly recognized by a grateful nation,” he said. “That we have to commit to those, as he put it, ‘who have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.’”
    This year, more than 6,500 wreaths were placed with the help of more than 900 volunteers. Over the last nine years, more than 30,000 wreaths have been placed, said Diana Pitts, mother of Unger and location coordinator for Wreaths Across America.
    Along with individual sponsorship, several groups and organizations sponsored wreaths including the Kansas City Royals Charity providing 1,000 and the United Services Benefit Association providing 500.
    “It is a remembrance,” said volunteer Belinda Hobbs of Liberty, Mo. “This is a giving time of year and I think it is an emotional thing, too.”
    Hobbs and her husband, Army veteran Joe Hobbs, volunteered to lay wreaths for the first time in 2017 at the ceremony in Smithville, Mo.
    “We have to remember what these young people did, giving their lives, many of them far off from their hometowns,” Joe Hobbs said. “It gives us what we have today, where we live, free. It just makes you feel like you owe them to show your respect to them for what they did.”
    Page 2 of 3 - During the formal ceremony, volunteers also placed nine ceremonial wreaths in honor of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines, prisoners of war and service members deemed missing in action, service members who were killed in action, and service members who were lost to suicide. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Holton Post 1367 Honor Guard fired salute volleys, and taps was played.
    “The wreaths before you represent our fallen. We want these wreaths to symbolize our honor to those who served and are serving in our armed forces of our nation and to the families who endure sacrifices every day on our behalf, and the families do endure sacrifices,” Pitts said.
    “To our children, we want you to understand the freedoms you enjoy today have not come for free. They have come with a major cost that someday you yourself may have to pay. As a nation standing together, we may defeat terrorism, hatred and injustice. Thanks to our veterans, we have the freedom to do just that.”
    Following the laying of the ceremonial wreaths, a special presentation was made to retired Marine Corps Col. Glenn Dyer, who helped place the KIA wreath. Dyer served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam as a medevac pilot who flew the injured and deceased out of Vietnam.
    “It is just a numbing experience and the war didn’t stop because of it,” Dyer said. “We still had our jobs to do.”
    On July 2, 1968, one of the service members Dyer picked up was his brother, Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Frederick Dyer, who had been killed in action. He didn’t know it until two days later.
    “Through an act of Congress in 1947, a gold star lapel button was made to be presented to those who lost a loved one in combat theater or through an act of terror as deemed by the secretary of Defense,” Pitts said. “Glenn has never been presented a gold star lapel button.”
    Dyer was pinned by retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Hagemeister, a Medal of Honor recipient.
    “I’ve honored my mother and father when they were here, when they wore the pin and the flag in the window,” Dyer said. “I never expected this and it was a surprise. In my own mind, it was something for them; it was not going to be something for me.
    “(That day) became my last flight in country,” he said. “I was assigned to escort his remains home and left with them within a day. I brought him home.”
    The Wreaths Across America retirement day is Jan. 19, 2019. To volunteer to pick up the wreaths, contact Pitts at dianawaa2017@yahoo.com.
    Page 3 of 3 - The next Wreaths Across America wreath-laying will be Dec. 16, 2019. To volunteer or sponsor a wreath, visit wreathsacrossamerica.org.
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