An iconic Christmas photo went viral six years ago – it shows donated, holiday wreaths laid on the snow-covered graves in Arlington National Cemetery.
Now known as Wreaths Across America, the project has grown to include all national cemeteries.
Three friends took on the challenge to provide holiday wreaths for the veterans buried at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.
They started with six wreaths in December 2006.
“We had about 40 people in attendance,” said Randy Lewer, who retired from the military after 23 years of service. “From there, we kept growing and this year we’re about 6,500 wreaths and we’re probably, I think for the past couple of years, about 7,000 people in attendance.”
Lewer credits his buddy Steve Leinwand, a veteran of Desert Storm, with getting the project started.
“Being in the military, we’re all brothers in arms,” Leinwand said. “And we have to give back, if we don’t, who will? With the economy, the only ones out here are veterans giving back to veterans.”
But for Leinwand it’s more than giving back to fellow veterans, he’s caring for his buddies buried at Bushnell.
The three veterans all have friends buried there. They visit their graves, tell stories, laugh and leave an occasional gift.
“A bag of M&Ms here, a shot of whiskey there, you know for our fallen brothers,” Leinwand said.
Their third buddy is veteran Jack Sellers.
“As long as you remember somebody up here, they’ll live forever,” Sellers said. “It’s when we forget them or never come to talk to them or never speak about them is when they’re gone.”
Sellers said that’s the point of Wreaths Across America – to remember the veterans. Each wreath costs $15, but Sellers, who is in charge of corporate sponsorships, said he’s never asked a corporate sponsor for a dime.
“I’m not one to ask for money. I just want your time which to me is more valuable than a dollar,” Sellers said. “If you come up here and give me your time, give me your minute. Then you’ll be giving everybody out here a dollar or two for a wreath especially the children.”
Participants are asked to be on site by 9:45 a.m. The wreaths are to be delivered at 10 a.m. and a ceremony honoring the fallen is planned at 11 a.m.
Remember – Honor – Teach – is the motto of Wreaths Across America. The wreath ceremony rivals Memorial Day attracting close to 7,000 according to Kurt Rotar, director of the Bushnell VA cemetery.
“You get people who come out here whether they have someone buried here or not,” Rotar said. “They’re pulled into the ceremony they’re pulled into the tradition and honor and dignity.”
It’s an honor that Lewer, Leinwand and Sellers want for every gravesite at Bushnell. There’s more to be done. Despite raising money for 6500 wreaths there are more than 100,000 gravesites at the Florida National Cemetery.
You can find out more about Wreaths Across American – Bushnell HERE.