IN MEMORIAM: Volunteers place wreaths to honor veterans

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Tom Bunnell lays a wreath on the grave of his grandfather, World War II veteran Bob Bunnell, whose service inspired his own military career. Family members and other volunteers honored veterans at Gravel Lawn Cemetery Saturday, December 18 as part of the national Wreaths Across America event.

Photo by Jessica Karins

Jessica Karins | Daily Reporter

FORTVILLE– When placing a wreath on the grave of a veteran, volunteers with Wreaths Across America take a moment to thank the person they’re honoring for their service and to say their name out loud.

“A person dies twice,” Linda Sue Rhoades said Saturday, Dec. 18, at Gravel Lawn Cemetery, where she is the business manager. “They die when they die, and they die the last time their name is spoken. So we don’t want them to have that second death.”

Wreaths at Gravel Lawn Cemetery recognize the service of veterans from all branches of the U.S. military. (Jessica Karins | Daily Reporter)

Gravel Lawn was host of the local Wreaths Across America event on Saturday, where over 200 wreaths were placed. The national program raises funds to place wreaths on the graves of deceased veterans and first-responders, a reminder of their service during the holiday season. Local organizations or individuals can partner with the national group to “adopt” a cemetery and raise money for wreaths.

The event takes place at the same time on the same day across the nation, rain or shine. Although it was cold and windy at Gravel Lawn Cemetery on Saturday, volunteers were thankful that rain had diminished by the time they began placing wreaths.

“I thought today when it was raining, it’s yucky out, and I didn’t know if we’d have a very good turnout,” Rhoades said. “But I thought about those veterans who laid in the rain and all kinds of inclement weather to protect our freedoms. So it’s wonderful to honor them, even in the rain and even in the cold.”

Turnout at the event included members of the Fortville VFW and a local Boy Scout troop, along with many others who participate because they’ve lost a family member who was a veteran. Organizers said Saturday’s event was the largest since Gravel Lawn began hosting Wreaths Across America.

In 2019, 2.2 million wreaths were placed in total across the country, 254,000 of them at Arlington National Cemetery.

Fortville resident Misty Rambis started the event several years ago and has partnered with local organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion to help it grow. About 800 veterans are buried at Gravel Lawn, with some graves dating to the Civil War. Rambis hopes that as the event continues to grow, there will eventually be enough wreaths for each grave.

Tom Bunnell, quartermaster of the Fortville VFW, attends the event with his father every year. The two placed a wreath on the grave of Tom Bunnell’s grandfather, Bob Bunnell, who, like two of his grandsons, served in the Army.

“My grandfather’s a World War II veteran, and he’s laid to rest here,” Tom Bunnell said. “On Memorial Day we put the flags out, and for Christmas we do the wreaths.”

Bob Bunnell served in Germany and Italy during the war. Tom Bunnell recalled that although his grandfather rarely spoke about his service, he was a role model and an inspiration for his own career in the military.

“Me and my brother wanted to be like him,” he said.

At Bob Bunnell’s grave, his grandson laid the wreath against his headstone, saluted and thanked him for his service.

Tom Bunnell said the event has grown every year. When it started, the group only had 40 wreaths to place. This year, they had 202. In 2020, the group didn’t hold an open event because of COVID-19, so Bunnell said it was nice to have a larger turnout this year, and particularly to see Boy Scouts attend.

“These children see that we’re putting the respect for these veterans, and maybe they’ll do it when they’re older too, and this event will continue forever,” Bunnell said. “…I want this to grow, and I want to make sure that we get all the veterans here taken care of.”

Those interested in participating in the event in 2022 can visit wreathsacrossamerica.org to sponsor one or more wreaths. From now until Jan. 13, paying for one wreath will purchase two. People can also sign up as a volunteer coordinator for cemeteries that do not already have one.