Wreath-laying ceremonies keep veterans alive in memory

With the rumble of motorcycles punctuating their arrival, an army of Girl Scouts and Boy scouts, high school military cadets, veterans, bagpipers, friends and families gathered at the South Florida National Cemetery to honor the nation’s war dead with a symbol of the holiday season, the “Wreaths Across America” ceremony.

Started in 1992 at Arlington National Cemetery by a Maine family that runs a Christmas wreath business, the program swelled to nationwide proportions after a moving photo of the green wreaths and their red ribbons against the snow became an Internet hit.

Since then Wal-Mart and other corporate sponsors have been enlisted, with Wal-Mart providing 18-wheelers and drivers to deliver the wreaths to cemeteries all over the country. The effort has quietly grown to more than 250,000 wreaths placed in nearly 600 locations.

On Friday, three Wal-Mart trucks rolled into the cemetery west of Lake Worth, escorted by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies and members of several motorcycle clubs that support veterans. Volunteers unloaded 8,000 wreaths, which lay near the site of the ceremony, wafting the aroma of fresh Christmas greens.

Just the sight of the trucks rolling in brought Melinda Galiano to tears.

Galiano, of Jupiter, took over running the ceremony this year. Her first problem was that Wreaths Across America was one of those best-kept secrets, so in March she had 5,000 glossy color postcards printed with a brief explanation of the program and her phone number. The 8,000 wreaths — a local record — include about 4,000 paid for by Wal-Mart employees. Another 2,000 were sponsored by the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office.

At the wreath-laying it was clear just how few of the older veterans, from World War II and Korea, are left to attend such ceremonies. Those who did show up, or their widows, needed walkers or younger relatives to help them stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

The forward guard now is the Vietnam generation of vets, dozens of whom showed up on Harley-Davidson motorcycles with flags fluttering behind. They are members of the Patriot Guard Riders, the Nam Knights and Leathernecks motorcycle clubs. The American Legion now has a motorcycle squad. Wars may remain the same, but the times are changing.

These vets have such jaunty nicknames as Whistler and Maverick and Knucklehead and Wing Man and Rabbi. Their current uniforms are jeans and black vests, but like their predecessors they consider it their duty, an extension of their military service, to support events such as these.

Melinda Galiano was a bundle of nerves on Friday, but by Saturday morning she was calmer as yet another army – the volunteers – were taking care of last-minute details.

“It’s a passionate cause for her,” said her friend Diane Shackelford.

Standing in the shade of a Wal-Mart 18-wheeler was Virginia Montalvo. Until handing over the leadership of the local wreath-laying ceremony to Galiano, she was the one who lay awake on the nights before the ceremonies.

“There were so many details,” she said. “One year, they forgot the rifles. Until they blew taps, I couldn’t relax. But it’s always gratifying to work with veterans.”

The next generation of military youth included Heather Riley, 17, and Alexandria Thornton, 16, members of the Junior ROTC program at Seminole Ridge High School in Loxahatchee.

Both girls plan to enter the military.

Riley fairly glowed to speak of her brother, Shawn, 19, who is due home on leave shortly. Then he leaves for Afghanistan.

“It scares me, it freaks me out to know where he’s going, but I’m proud of him,” said Riley, who wants to be a nurse in the military.

Though they have the traditional red bow of the Christmas season, wreaths have an even older meaning. From ancient times they have been awards of valor.

When Lt. Col. Allen West stood on the podium, the crowd grew close to boisterous. These continue to be West’s people, despite the loss, by a razor-thin margin, of his congressional seat in November.

West asked the crowd to remember the children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Friday.

Unlike those who lie beneath the white gravestones at the military cemetery, they were casualties of a private war that broke out inside the head of a 20-year-old gunman.

After the wreath-laying, a crowd formed around West for photos and handshakes.

In the columbarium, away from the crowd, is the resting place of Galiano’s father, Joseph Campanelli, a World War II vet. The face plate shows small pink smudges, a different kind of tribute.

“Every time I go there, and I go a lot, I reach up and kiss it,” said Galiano.

In Riviera Beach on Saturday morning, the U.S. Coast Guard Station conducted a similar ceremony at the Lake Worth Inlet, the fifth Wreaths Over the Water Ceremony for veterans who died at sea and never got to have a gravestone.

Among the attendees was Dorothy Moore, a staff officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary with Flotilla 54 in Boynton Beach. Moore, who has lived in Boynton Beach for 40 years, was 7 years old when her 19-year-old brother, Fireman Second Class Joseph Robert Weinstein, died at sea aboard the USS Meredith (DD-434) on October 15, 1942, his 19th birthday.

“This is the first time I have been to one of these ceremonies,” Moore said. “I’m all choked up because they are remembering my brother. As long as we remember him, he’s never really dead. He’s always alive in my heart.”