TOMS RIVER – Two local ceremonies recently commemorated the loss of those who served to protect America. They were among the 2,100 locations across the country to observe Wreaths Across America.
The organization’s mission is to “honor those who serve and their families, and teach future generations about the sacrifices made to preserve our freedoms.”
WAA Mobile Education Exhibit Ambassador Stefan Brann told The Toms River Times that the “mission statement of Wreaths Across America is three simple words, ‘remember, honor, teach.’ When we talk about Wreaths Across America we talk about those words with emphasis on the word, ‘remember’.”
“That is why we do what we do every year – which is to remember our fallen vets and those of the United States military who are no longer with us. We place what we call ‘veterans remembrance wreaths’ or any variation of those words except for ‘Christmas wreath.’ It is isn’t a Christmas wreath as that has a whole other meaning.” December 18 marked the organization’s 29th year.
Toms River resident Carol Koch coordinated the St. Joseph’s Cemetery ceremony event, saying it was the third year it’s been done there. “Last year we had to do plan B which was smaller due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was very simple and we had the military come. Today, we have the Marine Corps League from Bayville the Corporal William J. Smith Detachment, two groups of Boy Scouts and members of the Central Regional ROTC, members of Toms River High School North are also coming and their ROTC.”
She added, “I have members of St. Joseph’s Elementary School and Christian services of Donovan Catholic. There will be millions of volunteers across the United States doing the same thing we are doing here which is a brief service and then a placement of wreaths.”
“We also have members of the Joint Base (McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst) as part of the ceremony, a member of the Coast Guard and Father Scott Schaffer of St. Joseph’s Church. We have a good turnout today.”
Deborah O’Neil, who retired a few years ago as a police communications supervisor, coordinated the ceremony held at Ocean County Memorial Park Cemetery which was just 10 minutes away from St. Joseph’s.
“Due to the great response from sponsors, we had almost 500 wreaths to place,” she said. It was the first one ever done at that cemetery.
Seaside Heights Mayor Anthony Vaz began the event with a moment of silence, “to remember the fallen, prisoners of war, missing in action and to honor those who have served and are serving this great nation. This year across the country with more than 2,200 participants at locations like this throughout America stand as one nation together to remember, honor and teach the freedom we enjoy today did not come without a price.
“Lying here before us and in cemeteries across the nation are men and women who gave their lives so we can live in freedom without fear. The United States of America was founded on the ideas of freedom, justice and equality. Our nation stands as a shining beacon of liberty and freedom to the world. We thank those who gave their lives to keep us free and we shall never forget,” the mayor added.
The mayor also noted that the occasion marked the opportunity to “teach the next generation the values of freedom.”
Wreathes were laid out by a variety of individuals during that ceremony including U.S. Army ROTC cadets Cassiday Burns of Lavallette and Ashley Buss of Houston, Texas. Both attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
“This is my first time to take part in a ceremony like this,” Burns said.
“My family takes part in this every year in Houston,” Buss said adding that she wanted to join her friend for today’s ceremony.
“This was a very moving event,” said Lavallette Councilwoman Anita Zalom, also in attendance.
Afterwards, those who were part of the Ocean County Memorial Park Cemetery service were invited to the Moose Lodge based in Ortley Beach for a luncheon and fellowship courtesy of the Women of the Moose #1248.
Wreaths Across America began at Arlington National Cemetery in December of 1992 with 5,000 wreaths. Brann said, “we virtually went unnoticed for 13 years. An Air Force photographer took a picture of the wreaths at the cemetery and published it in a military magazine and that was it. In 2007 Wreaths Across America was formed as an organization and we have kept growing from there.”
Last year 1.7 million veterans’ wreaths were placed in total across the country, approximately 267,000 of them at Arlington National Cemetery including 14,000 for the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery. More than one million volunteers participated at 2,557 locations nationwide. Over 500 truckloads of wreaths were delivered across the nation by hundreds of volunteer professional truck drivers.