Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
The names of fallen service members were heard throughout the crowd as they were spoken by loved ones during the National Wreaths Across America Day observance Dec. 14 at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.
“Every time I visit a military cemetery, I am overwhelmed by the sacrifice of those who have gone before me. … On every visit, I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of human selfless sacrifice for the founding, maintaining and, most importantly, the protecting of our freedoms,” said Kansas Sen. Kevin Braun, who served as the guest speaker. “I often think about the magnificence of each of these individual soldiers and of their families. What made them so selfless as to be willing to give their own life for another? What gives their families the strength to go on after receiving the worst news a family member can receive?
“As humans, we often research the unknowable circumstance of their passing in hope to find answers to help with our desire to pay them the proper respect of which they are so deserving,” he said. “We stand here today in the presence of their remains with a feeling of utter inadequacy of how to thank them.”
Braun, a retired lieutenant colonel, said his feeling of inadequacy is heightened when he thinks about the numerous military funerals he attended and served as pallbearer for throughout his 32 years of service.
“The truth is, this is and should remain a void we can never fill. These were not people who set out to die, but rather people who were willing to do so based on a collective concept that some things are worth dying for,” Braun said. “They may not all have read our Constitution, but they were all patriots who defended it and acted as part of our nation’s collective patriots at the moments they were called to do so.
“We are left with these questions. What can we do to show them that their passing was not in vain? What can we do to honor their individual sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy?” he asked. “If you are military, serve honorably. If you are a civilian, live honorably. Respect military service and live in a manner that respects both the freedoms and responsibilities of living in a Constitutional Republic. Hang out your flag to demonstrate to all that you are proud to be an American that loves your country and appreciates the freedoms and principles on which this country was founded and that the souls among us today made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve.”
This year, more than 7,500 wreaths were placed with the help of hundreds of volunteers.
First-time volunteer Sherrie Schmidt, supervisor at the Fort Leavenworth branch of Frontier Community Credit Union, said she’s always wanted to help at the event.
“I have lots of family members who served in the military in different aspects and, fortunately, have not lost anybody in combat or war times,” Schmidt said, “but (WAA) just preserves the memory and honors these people who fought for us. It was very moving that so many people are here to honor all of these people.”
Over the last 10 years, more than 35,000 wreaths have been placed, said Diana Pitts, WAA location coordinator. Along with individual sponsorship, several groups and organizations sponsored wreaths, including the Kansas City Royals Charity, the United Services Benefit Association and KU Medical Center’s Military and Veterans Affairs.
“This year’s Wreaths Across America slogan is ‘Everyone Plays a Part,’” Pitts said. “Everyone here today has played a part in helping to ensure that those who have served our nation are not forgotten.”
During the ceremony, volunteers laid seven ceremonial wreaths honoring the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines and service members deemed prisoners of war or missing in action. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Holton Post 1367 Honor Guard fired salute volleys, and taps was played.
“The wreaths before you represent our fallen. They also represent those who serve and have served and their families’ sacrifices,” Pitts said. “To our children, we want you to understand the freedoms you enjoy today have not been free, but have come with a cost that someday you may have to pay yourself.
“As a nation standing together, we can defeat terrorism, hatred and injustice,” she said. “Thanks to our veterans, we have the freedom to do just that.”
Navy Capt. Dave Buehler, Defense Logistics Agency, Fort Belvoir, Va., who helped lay the ceremonial wreath in honor of the Navy, said he had personal reasons for volunteering.
He said he laid the wreath in honor of his friend Navy Cmdr. Duane Wolfe, who was killed May 25, 2009, while serving in Iraq, from wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device.
“We were serving with the (Naval Mobile Construction Battalion), and he was the operations officer, and he volunteered to go (to Iraq),” Buehler said. “He was about 18 months away from retirement, and he wanted to volunteer to go over one more time. He was killed about a month before he came home.
“I asked him why he volunteered to go over because he had been in the Navy almost 30 years,” he said. “He said, ‘Dave, I can’t keep sending these kids over without me going as well.’”
Buehler said having the wreath-laying each year is the right thing to do.
“It is the right thing to do for the men and women who have given all,” Buehler said. “We can do this for them.”
The Wreaths Across America retirement day is at 10 a.m. Jan. 18, 2020. To volunteer to pick up wreaths, contact Pitts at firstname.lastname@example.org.