Watch: Wreaths Across America Honors Those Lost at Sea

Sgt. Steven Thibodeau, police officer from the town of Scarborough, Maine, renders honors after placing a wreath at the grave marker during Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Dec. 14, 2013. DOD photo by Sebastian Sciotti Jr.

Sgt. Steven Thibodeau, police officer from the town of Scarborough, Maine, renders honors after placing a wreath at the grave marker during Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Dec. 14, 2013. DOD photo by Sebastian Sciotti Jr.

Veterans, families and organizations turned out Saturday for the annual Wreaths Across America celebration,  the placing of wreaths on veterans’ graves at hundreds of cemeteries locally, nationally and internationally.

A special ceremony was held in Ft. Myers for those lost at sea and never to be recovered. Here’s a video tribute from former WUSF Public Media intern and video photographer Alex Cook, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who is now working at WINK-TV in Ft. Myers.

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Fewer Holiday Wreaths Donated for Veterans’ Graves

Wreaths Across America at the Jacksonville National Cemetery.

Wreaths Across America at the Jacksonville National Cemetery.

The tradition of placing Christmas wreaths on the graves of fallen soldiers and veterans started in 1992 at Arlington National Cemetery. Wreaths Across America has grown to include cemeteries in all 50 states and more than 20 cemeteries overseas.

But this year, the program is experiencing a dramatic drop in donations at Arlington and other veterans’ cemeteries.

Wreaths placed at Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell in December 2012.

Wreaths placed at Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell in December 2012.

At the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, volunteers have gathered donations and sponsors for about 5,000 wreaths. Last year, they were able to lay 7,000 wreaths and had hoped to reach a goal of 10,000 wreaths for 2013.

“With the amount of people we had last year, we figured we could do 10,000,” said Randy Lewer, a veteran an one of three veterans who started the Bushnell wreaths program. “Unfortunately with the economy, it will fall quite short.”

Lewer and two other veterans, who loved to ride motorcycles together, started Wreaths Across America in 2006 at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell with only six wreaths.

“As long as you remember somebody up here, they’ll live forever,” veteran Jack Sellers said during an interview last year. “It’s when you forget them, or never come talk to them, never speak about them, is when they’re gone.”

Veterans Randy Lewer (R), Jack Sellers (C), and Steve Leinwand (L) took on the mission to provide wreaths for the veterans buried at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. November 2012.

Veterans Randy Lewer (R), Jack Sellers (C), and Steve Leinwand (L) took on the mission to provide wreaths for the veterans buried at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. November 2012.

Sellers died this year from tumors linked to Agent Orange. The third veteran Steve Leinwand also quit volunteering for health reasons.

So that left only Lewer to carry on. He’s arranged for several speakers including MacDill Air Force Base commander Col. Scott DeThomas. And several groups have volunteered to help lay the wreaths.

Volunteers will begin laying the wreaths at about 10:30 a.m. Dec. 14, 2013 at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. A ceremony will follow with speakers and the laying of a wreath in honor of POWs and MIAs.

Lewer credits community organizations, veterans groups and companies for helping sponsor the 5,000 wreaths. They’ve already placed the order, so additional contributions to the Bushnell wreaths program will go toward next year.

However, Lewer mentioned the Arlington National Cemetery is still accepting donations, $15 per wreath, until Dec. 11, 2013.

The Sarasota National Cemetery also is still accepting donations and is only 40 percent toward its goal.

The Bay Pines National Cemetery is only 1 percent toward its goal according to the Wreaths Across America website.

You can sponsor a wreath or checkout the cemeteries participating in the program at www.WreathsAcrossAmerica.org.

You can listen to Randy Lewer’s update on the Bushnell wreaths program on WUSF News.

Shutdown to Hit National Veterans Cemeteries Next

The Sarasota National Cemetery was opened in 2009. Photo courtesy of the American Legion Kirby Stewart Post 24 in Bradenton.

The Sarasota National Cemetery was opened in 2009. Photo courtesy of the American Legion Kirby Stewart Post 24 in Bradenton.

Washington has come together on one item, but not after much heartache by military families and embarrassment of elected officials.

The House and Senate passed a measure allowing payment of death benefits to military families during the government shutdown.  President Obama signed the resolution into law hours after the Senate vote according to the Military Times.

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the death benefits issue had been largely resolved for families on Thursday when the Defense Department signed a contract with a non-profit charity, Fisher House, for the organization to pay death benefits to families, with the Pentagon promising to reimburse expenses once the government shutdown is over. “The issue is largely moot,” he said. “It has been resolved.”

Still, nobody objected when Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked for a vote on the House-passed bill.

Lawmakers thought they had provided funding for death benefits with the Sept. 30 enactment of the Pay Our Military Act, a measure promising full pay and allowances to service members during a government shutdown. Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the pay law did not apply to death benefits, where Defense Department and Justice Department lawyers had determined were not, technically, pay or allowances.

The issue got political attention after five service members were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend, but Hale said he had already warned on Oct. 1 that death benefits were not going to be paid.

Since the shutdown on Oct. 1, 26 active-duty service members have died and are eligible for the $100,000 death gratuity.

But the resolution does not address reduced hours at the National Veterans’ Cemeteries and the fact that workers who prepare the grave sites for burials are working without pay until the shutdown resolved. Howard Altman of the Tampa Tribune reports that on average 30 burials a day are held at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

If the government shutdown doesn’t end by Oct. 22, national cemeteries will have to reduce the number of veterans they can bury every day, furlough employees and limit the care they give to gravesites, said Kurt Rotar, director of the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

“I am very concerned,” Rotar said. “If we run out of funds, we go into the shutdown mode and have to send home three-quarters of our workforce. The mission of internment of veterans won’t stop, but we won’t be able to do as many in a day.”

Rotar said Oct. 22 is the day money already allocated to the national cemeteries will run out.

 

Volunteers Wanted to Help Lay Wreaths on Vets’ Graves

Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell. Photo Credit: Bobbie O'Brien/WUSF

Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell. Photo Credit: Bobbie O’Brien/WUSF

You don’t have to have family or friends buried at the national cemeteries to help place wreaths on veterans’ graves. All you have to do is volunteer some of your time Saturday morning, Dec. 15, 2012.

The tradition of laying holiday wreaths on the graves of veterans started in Arlington National Cemetery and has grown to include all national cemeteries, including those in Florida.

Kurt Rotar, director of the Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell, said the hard work of raising money to pay for the wreaths is mostly done.

“Sgt. Major Dan Blackman with the Army National Guard is taking sponsorship of the St. Augustine,” Rotar said. “Jacksonville, South Florida, Sarasota all have sponsors that organize just like this group does.”

The group at Bushnell’s Florida National Cemetery will place 6,500 wreaths Dec. 15, starting at 9:45 with a ceremony at 11:00.

At Bay Pines National Cemetery, volunteers are asked to show up at 11:00 and wear gloves to protect their hands. That ceremony is at noon.

At the Sarasota National Cemetery, the wreath laying begins at 9:30 Saturday morning.

Three Veterans Bring Wreaths Across America to Florida

Wreaths Across America started in 1992 at Arlington National Cemetery. Six years ago this photo went viral and prompted expansion of the project to all national cemeteries.

Wreaths Across America started in 1992 at Arlington National Cemetery. Six years ago this photo went viral and prompted expansion of the project to all national cemeteries.

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.

Veterans Randy Lewer (R), Jack Sellers (C), and Steve Leinwand (L) took on the mission to provide wreaths for the veterans buried at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

Veterans Randy Lewer (R), Jack Sellers (C), and Steve Leinwand (L) took on the mission to provide wreaths for the veterans buried at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

“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.

There are more than 100,000 gravesites at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

There are more than 100,000 gravesites at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

“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.”

An early holiday wreath at one of three columbariums at Florida National Cemetery.

An early holiday wreath at one of three columbariums at Florida National Cemetery.

That’s the Christmas wish of Sellers, Leinwand and Lewer – that people will come to the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell on December 15 to help lay the wreaths this year.

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.

Two New National Cemeteries for Florida Veterans

The Sarasota National Cemetery was opened in 2009. Photo courtesy of the American Legion Kirby Stewart Post 24 in Bradenton.

Florida veterans will soon have two more options for burial at VA National Cemeteries in the state. Currently, there are seven national cemeteries, but large populations of veterans in north and east central Florida are still not served.

So, the Department of Veterans Affairs purchased land for two new cemeteries to accommodate about 247,000 veterans living more than 75 miles from any of the current cemeteries.

For veterans in the Daytona and Melbourne region, the VA purchased 318-acres, known as Acosta Groves, on US. Route 1 in northern Brevard County. Veterans living in the Tallahassee region will have a new cemetery on 250 acres along Apalachee Parkway.

Veterans in the Tampa Bay area have to drive an hour north to Bushnell’s Florida National Cemetery for burials because Bay Pines National Cemetery in Pinellas County only has room left for cremated remains.

: St. Augustine National Cemetery. Dade monuments.

: St. Augustine National Cemetery. Dade monuments. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some 1.6 million veterans live in Florida. A VA survey showed that many are not using their burial benefits because the national cemeteries were too far away according to Michael Nacincik of the VA National Cemetery Administration.

Nacincik said 80 percent of burials are from within a 75 mile radius of a national cemetery.

“So, the VA uses that as a benchmark when we’re looking at veterans populations to place that cemetery that captures that 75 mile circle,” Nacincik said.

It will take about 18 months to construct and open the cemeteries in Tallahassee and near Daytona.  In the past five years, the VA has opened new cemeteries in Jacksonville, South Florida in Lake Worth and Sarasota. The St. Augustine National Cemetery has been closed to new burials since 1997.

Nacincik said that the NCA is also expanding national cemeteries to under-served veterans in western New York, southern Colorado and Omaha.

The VA National Cemeteries Administration offers an online map of 131 national cemeteries it oversees in 39 states and Puerto Rico. Nearly 4 million Americans including veterans from every war are buried in the cemeteries and 33 soldier lots and monument sites.

Memorial Day Weekend Ceremonies

The U.S. Special Operations Command Memorial on MacDill Air Force Base.

You can browse the VA National Cemetery website to find a Memorial Day Ceremony nearest you.

FLORIDA MEMORIAL DAY CEREMONIES:

SUNDAY, MAY 27

Veterans Memorial Park, Tampa, FL  – 10:55 a.m.- A Memorial Day Ceremony featuring Brig. Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., U.S. Central Command Deputy Director of Operations, two members of the Phantom Airborne Brigade, the CENTCOM Color Guard and a POW/MIA Empty Chair Remembrance Celebration. Veterans Memorial Park and Rear Admiral LeRoy Collins, Jr. Museum, 602 Highway 301 N. in Tampa

Sarasota National Cemetery, FL  – 1:15 p.m. – A Memorial Day Ceremony featuring Florida Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott at the Sarasota National Cemetery, 9810 State Road 72, Sarasota, FL.

MONDAY, MAY 28

Bushnell AMVETS Ride – 7:30 a.m. – Annual Memorial Day Ride to the National Cemetery in Bushnell an extra meeting point and early departure. AMVETS Riders Chapter 44 will be leading a ride from Tampa and meet up with the Tampa chapter of the Defenders Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club for a joint ride to the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. Meet at the Ker’s Winghouse on Hwy 301 & I- 4 – Kick Stands Up at 8 a.m.

MacDill Air Force Base – 8 a.m. – The 6th Air Mobility Wing will host a Memorial Day Ceremony at the Base Flag Pole. The events include posting of the Colors, reading of a poem, laying of a wreath, remarks by 6th Air Mobility Wing Commander Col. Lenny Richoux, 21-gun salute, playing of taps and singing of America the Beautiful. Not open to the public.

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