BRIDGEVILLE – Several years ago, a Patriot Guard Rider left a holiday wreath at the grave of U.S. Army Cpl. Russell G. Culbertson III, a local soldier who died six years ago in Iraq.
The rider sent a photograph of the grave adorned with the green wreath and bright red bow to Culbertson’s family, prompting his mother, Denise, to become involved in Wreaths Across America the following year. The program seeks to place holiday wreaths at veterans graves each December.
Saturday, at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies, more than 1,000 people joined in the annual wreath-laying ceremony.
The ceremony is similar to others around the nation, where an estimated 400,000 wreaths were laid on graves to honor veterans for their service and families for their sacrifice.
“This is the most we’ve had,” said cemetery director Ronald Hestdalen. “I’m overwhelmed with the support we get from the local area. The folks have understood what it means to be a veteran, and they appreciate the sacrifices that the veterans endured.”
U.S. Congressman Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, could recall when the ceremony attracted between 40 to 50 people. Yesterday, there were more than that number in the two school buses of children from Connellsville.
The first year Culbertson was involved, a total of 858 wreaths were placed on the graves. This year, there were more than 5,000 wreaths. Culbertson helped raise money to purchase 1,209 of those and said she received a donation of $2,400 from Covenant Life Church while the deacons of her church, Faith United Presbyterian, also helped sell wreaths.
The wreath’s circle is a symbol for eternity while our loved ones rest in God’s hands, said Murphy.
“Although we mourn their loss, we celebrate their lives,” he added.
John Kenes, of Uniontown, master sergeant Marine Corps retired, spoke of the price of freedom.
After the Civil Air Patrol laid wreaths for those who served in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines, POW’s or those listed as MIA, the crowed fanned out to place the wreaths.
“Beautiful, just beautiful,” one woman said as she surveyed the cemetery which now includes 6,700 graves. There were 1,025 interments in 2012.
The cemetery’s flag was flown at half-staff and will remain that way until Dec. 18 in memory of the shootings at Newtown, Conn., said Hestdalen.
One of the largest wreath-laying ceremony takes place in Arlington Cemetery after Wreaths Across America escorts the wreaths from Maine where they originate.
Wreaths Across America began in 1992 when a surplus of wreaths were donated to Arlington from the owners of the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Maine. They quietly continued the tribute every year until a 2005 photograph of the wreaths circulated on the Internet drew national attention.
The ceremonies are held either the second or third Saturday of December.