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Photos by Mary Alice Murphy

On a sunny, winter day, Fort Bayard National Cemetery looked its best on Dec. 14, 2019, with wreaths on every gravesite to honor those buried there who served their country with honor.

Dr. John Bell, who served with the Medical Corps in Vietnam, was the master of ceremonies of the event at Grant County's national cemetery. He gave some of the history.

The annual Wreaths Across America takes place at cemeteries across the U.S., on the second Saturday of December. The history of the wreaths began in 1992 when Worcester Wreaths in Maine had a surplus of wreaths and Morrill Worcester, the president of the company, with the help of Maine U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, received permission to place the wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery in the oldest part where fewer people were visiting and decorating graves for the holiday season.

In 2005, a photo of the cemetery covered in snow, with each of the tombstones covered with a wreath went viral. And the event grew, so Worcester, veterans and other volunteers formed the nonprofit organization Wreaths Across America, whose motivation is: Remember. Honor. Teach. In 2014, 226,525 wreaths were placed at Arlington covering every gravesite.

The effort in Grant County began with Gold Star Mother Mary Cowan starting the ball rolling with 7 wreaths in 2009. In 2010, 35 wreaths were placed, thanks to Grant Countians purchasing the wreaths. In 2011, 72 were placed; 2012, 549; 2013, 1,040; 2014, 1,755; 2015, 2,079; 2016, 3,024; 2017, 3,824; 2018, 4,491, enough to cover every gravestone; and 2019, 4,536, again covering the cemetery with wreaths.

Bell recognized Cowan and other members of her committee, including Paula Cooley, Laura Wiest, Gina Maestas, Robert and Danna Lopez, Frank Donohue, Susie Salars, Deborah Cosper-Hughs, Shirley Mize, Susie Yniguez, Niel McDonald, Anna Hill, Kathy Strange, Cecilia and John Bell, Renetta Galasini, and John Sterle.He also recognized posthumously, Mark Erickson, photographer, who always took photos of the arrival and laying of the wreaths, and Rocky Hildebrand, Santa Clara Trustee, who helped with logistics.

More than 500 sponsors purchased wreaths this year. Bell called for a moment of silence for those who are buried at the cemetery, as well as for the prisoners of war and missing in action and all those who have served within "our great nation's military history."

Two young members of the Spurs 4-H group, which sponsored 182 wreaths led The Pledge of Allegiance. The Hi Lo Silvers women's singing group performed The Star-Spangled Banner.

American Legion Post 18 Commander John Sterle, retired Navy served as guest speaker. He began by recognizing Joe Trujillo and his team, who oversee Fort Bayard National Cemetery. "They have done an exceptional job during the recent construction and groundskeeping phase." He also dedicated the day to Wreaths Across America team members, "who aren't with us today: Mark Erickson and Rocky Hildebrand. Their support and involvement with Wreaths Across America will be forever missed."

Sterle requested that everyone who placed a wreath or just looked at a gravestone with a wreath say the name on the marker out loud. "It has been previously stated that everyone dies twice.The first time when their physical body shuts down and their soul leaves the body. The second time is when their name is uttered out loud for the last time. Please say the name out loud and keep their spirit alive by announcing the names to the heavens."

He told entertaining personal stories. Because he is grew up in upstate New York, his wife's family, who was from Arizona, always called him a "damn Yankee." But several years ago, his brother-in-law asked him and his wife to locate the gravesite of Sterle's mother-in-law's great-grandfather, James Osborne who was buried in Socorro. "Not only did we find his gravesite, but his headstone read, James Osborn, Co. H, 12th New York Inf Reg (infantry regiment). From that day on, I was no longer the only damn Yankee in the family."

Sterle said, as a retired Navy man, when he walks around the Fort Bayard cemetery, he tends to read Navy headstones, including Rudy Rosales, who died at 25 years of age and Prudencio Garcia, who live to 101 after serving in World War II. "Imagine the stories they could tell."

"During this past year, 88 brothers and sisters have joined their fellow veterans here at Fort Bayard," Stele said. "As a member of the Marine Corps League Detachment Honor Guard, I respond whenever called, rendering the last military honors to one of our fallen brothers or sisters. We have performed approximately 80 tuners this past year, with most right here at this national cemetery. Mark Twain said: 'The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.' It is a privilege and an honor to be part of these last farewells. That's my 'Why.'"

He has already made his funeral plans known to a local funeral home that he wants to be buried at Fort Bayard National Cemetery. He laughed when he said, although he knows it is not possible, he would like to be "laid to rest between Roy Henry Beer, a sergeant with the Coastal Artillery Corps, who passed away on June 29, 1927 and Maurice August Stein, a private who served with the Auxiliary Remount Deport #513 and died on December 16, 1923. Imagine the stories we could share."

Sterle said a lot of headstones honor the veteran with "beloved husband and father," "gone, but not forgotten," "until we meet again". "I'm sure Marie (his wife) will have my grave marker inscribed with 'He finally quit talking!'"

He concluded with: "Thank you for the honor to speak to y'all today. God bless you, God bless our veterans and God bless the United States of America."

Bell, in introducing those who would post wreaths around the ceremony area, said: "We're proud to be Americans, but we must remember the freedoms we enjoy have not come without a price. We answer to no one but our own feelings. We have the right to success, the right to fail, and we enjoy freedom, justice and equality. We cannot take the freedoms for granted."

"President Ronald Reagan said: 'We didn't pass along our freedoms through our bloodlines.' We must teach our children and grandchildren how to maintain our freedoms."

Those who posted wreaths included Mike Trujillo placing the Army wreath; Ben Collins, the Marine Corps wreath; Gabe Partido, the Navy wreath; Ray Davis, Air Force; Ken Ladner, Coast Guard; Debbie Root, Merchant Marines for her father; Ray Davis, POWs and MIAs; Doug Dinwiddie, representing the Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society honoring all the soldiers buried at Fort Bayard; and Becky Dinwiddie the U.S. Medical and Nursing Corps members who served at Fort Bayard.

The Hi Lo Silvers sang "Let There be Peace."

Bell said the wreaths honor "those who lay around us, as well as their families. We ask you to visit a grave ad think of the sacrifices they made and experiences they had. Say the name out loud."

The Hi Lo Silvers ended with "God Bless America," and Don Spann played "Taps."

Bell recognized Cowan with flowers and said: "not many communities of this size could accomplish what we have accomplished. We appreciate your dedication." John Tetford of the DAV presented Cowan with a plaque of appreciation for what she has accomplished with Wreaths Across America at Fort Bayard National Cemetery.

"Once again, Mary gets the applause," Cowan said. "Thank you to my fabulous crew, without whom we could not have done it. And thank you to all of you for contributing to our veterans at Fort Bayard."

A team member Paula Cooley told the Beat that 2,158 cemeteries around the country participated this year and placed more than 2.2 million wreaths on graves.

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