As families of the fallen started arriving at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Preston, Minn., for the first honorary wreath ceremony of Wreaths for the Fallen, the beautiful colors of fall had faded, but the heroes interred at the cemetery will never fade from our memory.
Saturday, December 16, 2017, was a mild December day in Minnesota, with a high temperature near 40 degrees, with bright sunshine in contrast to last year’s wreath ceremony when the weather was bitterly cold with high winds.
Robert Gross, administrator of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery – Preston, welcomed the over 150 people who attended the ceremony and explained that the 2017 wreath ceremony “is actually our second, but we are going to call this our first honorary one because last year mother nature did not cooperate; a lot of families that wanted to be here could not be here, so for all practical purposes this is our first wreath laying ceremony here at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery.”
Wreaths for the Fallen began in late 2009 when “Jason Olson, Motley, Minnesota, a Minnesota Patriot Guard Ride Captain for the Brainerd Sector had an idea of providing wreaths for all the veterans graves at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery,” according to the website WreathsForTheFallen.org.
The movement began small and has grown exponentially as the website states, “The first year of laying wreaths was in 2006 and five wreaths were placed at the cemetery.”
In its first year, WreathsForTheFallen.org (as the organization’s name became) increased the number of wreaths and the numbers soared from about 90 in 2008, 400 in 2009, 1,492 in 2010, 2,700 in 2011, 3,200 in 2012, 3,549 in 2013, 3,800 in 2014, to a record breaking 4,157 honor wreaths in 2015, when every veteran and their family interred there received a honor wreath” fulfilling the goal Olson was reaching for. Surpassing this, in 2016 over 4,700 wreaths were placed.
Representative Greg Davids, who attended this year’s event, stated, “The ceremony is such a noble tribute to those who fought for our freedoms, and the wreaths honor those at a time when the family members miss them the most. For me, it’s the perfect time to reflect on the sacrifices made by those buried here and give thanks to them for making significant contributions to the success of our country.”
It takes the volunteerism and philanthropy of many people to maintain this goal, as there are several hundred additional burials each year. Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery – Preston is fortunate to be able to work with Wreaths for the Fallen out of Little Falls, Minn., to continue the program.
When asked if the wreaths are donated, Gross replied, “Wreaths for the Fallen actually provide the wreaths, some families that have loved ones buried here on grounds have actually sponsored a wreath and that’s something we do encourage families to do because it does help continue the program.”
The Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery – Preston received a total of 250 wreaths and Gross noted, “Today we will be placing 212 ground wreaths, seven ceremonial wreaths, three wreaths at the columbarium, and then another 12 wreaths at the columbarium and then we will have a few wreaths left over so that if we do any additional burials in the next two to three weeks we will be able to place a wreath on that gravesite as well.”
After the National Anthem was played, Gross began his very touching speech by saying, “Today we are gathered at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery – Preston, to remember that we are one nation under that flag. We are proud to be Americans that live in a free society made up of many people, many races, from different walks of life. The freedoms we enjoy today though have not come without a price. Lying here in this hallowed ground and in cemeteries across the world are thousands of men and women who have served our nation.”
He then spoke to those in the audience that are currently serving, as he stated, “We want to say thank you for the nights slept freezing in a tent or sweating in a desert. For the lonely days spent missing loved ones, for the wounds suffered fighting evil and the precious moments missed back home.”
Gross felt a special thank you was essential for the families of military members as well, saying, “To the parents who raised you and made you the man or woman that you are today. A special thank you also to the loved ones who have stood by you,” during your time of service.
“And for those lying here, may your legacy be honored for generations to come. May your blood not have been shed in vain, may we prove worthy of your sacrifice,” stated Gross. “As time marches on and we lose members of a generation, it is imperative that we recognize and honor their service and sacrifices and ensure America never forgets the cost of freedom,” he said.
The seven ceremonial wreaths are placed by a different group each year, and this year those laying these wreaths were a included the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery team, as Gross stated, “I felt is appropriate to have the team who is responsible, who works out here, whose really worked to create this to what it is today to be a part of this service.” The final person to place a ceremonial wreath was Lyle Duxbury with the POW Riders and the Patriot Guard.
Gross placed the first ceremonial wreath in memory of those who served in the U.S. Army, John Dollar placed an honor wreath in memory of those who served in the U.S. Marine Corp, Mike Gudmundson placed a wreath in memory of those who served in the U.S. Navy, John Marzolf placed a wreath in memory of those who served in the U.S. Air Force, Sasha Holst placed a wreath in memory of those who served in the U.S. Coast Guard and John Kinneberg placed a wreath in memory of those who served in the Merchant Marines.
The final wreath was placed by Duxbury in honor of more than 90,000 servicemen and servicewomen from all branches of service whose last known military status was either Prisoner of War or Missing In Action.
The families were then able to place wreaths for their loved ones, including the family of Earl Hoff. Hoff’s daughter, Deborah Jeffers, stated, “It’s nice to finally see people who honestly believe in our country and are there for everybody (that served their country).”
Cemetery Representative Sasha Holst commented that the ceremony made her feel warm inside, adding, “It’s an honor to be here.”
When asked what the ceremony meant to him, Craig Ugland with the Minnesota Patriot Guard stated, “It’s the holiday season which is always tough for a lot of veterans families that have lost a loved one so this is just a way to let them know that the community still remembers their sacrifices,” as he paused for a second Ugland said, “It’s such a simple gesture,” but it means so much.
As the ceremony drew to an end, those who had placed Wreaths for the Fallen stood back to see the colors of Christmas decorating every grave in our Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery.