Four years ago, Wisconsin American Legion Riders Ray and Evelyn McSherry had an idea: stage a wreath-laying ceremony at the Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Waupaca as part of the national Wreaths Across America program. And though the husband-and-wife team obviously had a vision of what they wanted, the pair had no idea that vision would turn into a reality as quickly – and in such a larger scale – that it has.
In the first year of the program, enough money was raised to place 400 wreaths at the cemetery. But on Dec. 12, that number grew to 5,000. This year, 5,400 wreaths were placed on the graves buried at the cemetery. More than 200 volunteers – Legion family members, other veterans organizations and people just wanting to participate – helped place the wreaths.
“We could not do what we’ve done here without the help of everyone involved,” Ray said. “When we see a good turnout like this, we are reassured what we are trying to do here is the right thing. And we will continue until we lay a wreath on every headstone.”
The effort is spearheaded by the Wisconsin Legion Riders and has in just four years come close to providing a wreath for all 6,600 gravesites at the cemetery. While Ray and Evelyn are surprised the program took off as quickly as it did, they’re not completely shocked.
“Any mission you give The American Legion Riders is going to be accomplished,” Evelyn said. “And once we went to the state level and let the other districts know what we were doing, they got totally behind us. I think the biggest thing is the remembering of the veterans (and) the remembering of what they sacrificed. One way we can remember it is by placing wreaths here.”
The Wisconsin Legion Riders and other Legion family members raised more than $44,000 to cover the cost of the wreaths. The effort got a big boost from the Boys and Girls Brigade in Neenah, Wis. The brigade, a Wisconsin youth organization, donated 900 wreaths.
Evelyn said fundraising efforts for this year’s event started in January 2015. Wreaths are $15 apiece, and Wreaths Across America offers a program that provides one free wreath for every two purchased.
“What I’ve started doing is sending out reminder mailings, usually in the summer, to people who have donated in the past,” Evelyn said. “I do presentations at different (Auxiliary) units and different posts around the state. We do press releases to newspaper. We’ve done (PSAs) on radio and TV. We do try to get as much publicity out there as we can.
“Our biggest asset is word of mouth. Anyone that’s been here one year seems to go to their community and let everybody know what we’re doing, and that helps encourage the people to donate to our cause.”
Gina Whiting, the chaplain for Wisconsin’s Sixth District’s Legion Riders and a member of Post 351 in Montello, came to help place wreaths. She’s also a social worker who has a clinic at the nearby Wisconsin Veterans Home at King.
“I serve a number of veterans and their families," Whiting said. “To them – especially for those who have people who are buried here – it means a lot just to have that commemoration.”
Sgt. Dennis Smith, a Marine Corps recruiter based out of Appleton, Wis., and other Marines brought a group of approximately 40 Marine recruits – some hitting boot camp the next day, others as long as a year from now – to the ceremony.
“During the interview process, we talk to these young men and women … about the sacrifices (and) the pride of belonging,” Smith said. “This just kind of puts truth to the word what we were talking to them about. It really just helps them to see the people that have come before them and to know of the legacy that they can carry on to the next generation.”
One of those Marine recruits was 17-year-old Chris Blue, a senior at Lincoln High School in Manitowoc who will enter the Marines after graduation. “It’s definitely something that gives me goose bumps,” Blue said of attending the event. “You think of all these people serving and see all these white markers, and it’s kind of just a mind-boggling thing. What our sergeant always talks to us about is all these people paved the way for us and shed their blood to protect this country. They’re paving the way for our service.”
During a ceremony following the wreath-laying, Master of Ceremonies Jim Campbell read off the number of casualties in each U.S. war dating back to World War I.
“We are here to remember that the freedoms we enjoy today have not come without a price,” said Campbell, District 8 Legion Riders vice president. “Lying here before us and in cemeteries throughout this nation … are men and women who gave their lives so that we can live in freedom without fear. We thank those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to keep us free, and we shall never forget you.”
During the ceremony, wreaths were placed to honor every branch of the U.S. military and comments were made to express appreciation for those who were being honored by the wreaths.
“How long does honor last?” asked Mike Kollmansberger, Wisconsin Sons of The American Legion detachment commander. “As long as we remember, they are honored.”
Wisconsin American Legion Auxiliary State President Laura Calteux said honoring servicemembers is something the Legion family will always do. “We want to make sure that we are always teaching the next generation what it means to remember and honor our veterans,” she said.
Past Department of Wisconsin Commander Denise Rohan said that when she checked Facebook earlier that morning, she was amazed to see all of her friends who were taking part in Wreaths Across America events throughout the country.
“A friend of mine from Virginia, others from Minnesota, Mississippi (and) all the way to California – that is their plan for today,” Rohan said. “There are wonderful things happening across this nation, and you are all part of that. Thank you for taking the time to be out here on a cold December day.”
National Vice Commander David Gough, a Wisconsin Legion Rider, said that the wreaths placed Saturday “are a symbol of honor, respect and victory.” Gough also praised the Legion Riders, as well as all the other volunteers and donors, for making the event possible.
“We salute and remember all of our nation’s veterans,” Gough said. “We owe our freedom to them. There is no better time than now to say, ‘Thanks. I know what you did, and I appreciate it.’ They deserve no less.”