Photo by Jim Dresbach
United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps’ Stephen Christopher Clark lays a wreath at the grave of his grandfather, Navy Cmdr. Stephen P. Ragan, in Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60 at the beginning of Wreaths Across America Dec. 14.
Survivors regularly pay respects to fallen family members inside the stone walls of Arlington National Cemetery from January through November, but the numbers of military family members multiply on the advent of the holidays. Trips are made from near and far. Warm tears flow on cold December days, voices choke with emotion and knees quiver on a walk over the frozen sod to a child’s or spouse’s final resting place.
The second Saturday in December has evolved into an annual trek to Arlington for many brothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives and mothers. Wreaths Across America (WAA) brings them all together on the ANC’s hallowed acreage.
For the 22nd year, graves at America’s most recognizable military cemetery were adorned with 143,000 remembrance wreaths by nearly 30,000 volunteers who honored loved ones and heroes during the 2013 WAA mass wreath laying Dec. 14.
While family members of lost servicemembers also volunteer, many annually give of their time to remember Marines, Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen buried at Arlington.
Among the VIPs at the Arlington event was Barb Benard, national president of American Gold Star Mothers. Her Dec. 14 destination was Section 60 on the behalf of two mothers who lost sons in battle.
"I have two mothers who called the national headquarters and wanted information [on Wreaths Across America] and Gold Star Mothers," Benard explained. "I said I was going to Arlington, so I got their names and their [sons’] grave marker numbers, and I told them I would put a wreath on their sons’ graves.
"I don’t know them at all — all I know one mother is from New York and the other is from Colorado," Benard continued. "Remember, we’re not just placing a wreath — we’re stopping to read that name, and we are realizing that this is an individual who had a family at one point or the other and actually gave the ultimate sacrifice."
By the afternoon courtesy of Benard, Navy Seal and Purple Heart recipient David M. Tapper and Persian Gulf veteran Navy Lt. Patrick Kelly Connor — both eternally resting in Section 60 — had remembrance wreaths on their respective headstones.
Catie Serex also visited Section 60 the morning of Dec. 14 and openly reminisced about her father, Navy Lt. Ricky Alan Serex and his relationship with the cemetery and Joint Base Myer- Henderson Hall. Her reflections were both sweet and somber as her voice cut the freezing air following her personal WAA wreath-laying.
"My mom grew up in Falls Church, and they both picked out Fort Myer’s Old Post Chapel when they were getting married," Serex said. "They had the whole wedding on the base — the wedding reception was at the O [Officers] Club. At that time, my dad told my mom if anything ever happened to him, he wanted to come back here, so when he was killed [in an aircraft accident], she said Arlington is the only place he can go. We had the funeral service at Old Post Chapel, and he’s been buried here for over 20 years."
After the 2006 passing of her husband, Army Brig. Gen. Gerald C. Brown, Falls Church’s Jean Brown kept her spouse’s passion and devotion toward Wreaths Across America alive.
"I took up his mantle after he passed away," Brown said from her husband’s Section 60 gravesite. "My husband and my father — as well as my sister — were very active in the very early days of Wreaths Across America. In those days, they had a single [convoy] truck and coffee and doughnuts. I’ve been out here every year since he passed away. I spend a couple hours here with my husband and lay a couple other wreaths. This is important; it is a great way to recognize that people have laid down their lives for us."