(Photo by Clay Lomneth)

A mission of honor, remembrance

As a past director of American Legion Riders Chapter 210 in Danville, Ill., John Pigg made raising funds for the local Wreaths Across America event at Danville National Cemetery a priority. An emotional visit to the cemetery a few years ago is what inspired Pigg to do so.

“Three years ago I purchased a wreath for my uncle. He’s buried in the far back corner of the cemetery,” Pigg said as he began to tear up. “As I was taking the wreath back to his grave, I happened to pass a tombstone that had a wreath and one that didn’t. So I stopped and I thought, ‘What could I have done for that one to get one more wreath for that veteran there?’ That’s what made it such a passion for me.”

That passion was on full display Dec. 16 at the cemetery, where one of more than 1,000 Wreaths Across America events across the nation took place. It was the 26th year for Wreaths Across America and the 12th year such a ceremony has taken place at Danville National Cemetery.

More than 5,900 wreaths were placed in Danville – the bulk of which were provided through fundraising efforts from ALR Chapter 210. Post 210 also provided a community dinner after the event for those who participated in the wreath-laying.

Chapter 210 solicits individuals for donations and also gets funds from families who have a loved one buried at the cemetery. The Riders raised nearly $14,000 via a donation bucket, and also teamed up with the Patriot Guard Riders to help raise money. ALR Chapter 210 also provides an escort to the wreaths into the cemetery the day before the event

“We’ve been involved (with Wreaths Across America) since Year 1, but we’ve gotten more heavily involved in the last three years,” Pigg said. “When I was (ALR) director, that was one of the missions that I wanted to promote and move forward. We make sure we get the word out.

“Our mission and our goal is to cover all 12,000 graves. I think in the next two or three years we’re going to make that happen.”

Wreaths Across America local coordinator Tammy Williams took over the program four years ago and has seen the number of wreaths grow from 184 in 2013 to nearly 6,000 now.

“I am thrilled with the fact we have half of the cemetery covered in four year’s time,” Williams said. “The first year I had the help of the Legion Riders I went from 768 (wreaths) to 2,900. Their help just like quadrupled my effort. I don’t know what I would do without them. They have just done so much for me.”

At a ceremony prior to hundreds of volunteers helping place the wreaths, a Legion Rider, military recruits and a University of Illinois ROTC instructor placed wreaths honoring each of the five branches of the military and the Merchant Marines. And World War II veteran Charles Dukes, who spent six months in a German labor camp, laid a wreath in honor of U.S. prisoners of war and missing in action.

During the ceremony, Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer thanked volunteers for coming out in strong numbers. “I think those veterans that are represented here today could not be happier to see so many of you took of your time on this beautiful Saturday to be here in this celebration,” he said. “Thank you all so much."

Illinois State Sen. Scott Bennett also spoke at the ceremony and took time to remind the crowd of the struggle current veterans have dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We must recommit ourselves to the promise that we make to our veterans … and to fulfill our obligation to be there for them as they have always been there for us,” Bennett said. “Our veterans may leave the bullets and bombs behind them on hostile shores. But some of their most grueling battles … lay ahead, not in far-off lands but here in America. This is the war at home.”

Reach out to those veterans, Bennett said. "Most of all, remind them they have a friend in you," he said. "You just may save a life."

After the ceremony, volunteers spread to all corners of the cemetery to place wreaths. That many were children caught the notice of Danville National Cemetery Director Tony Henderson.

“I am particular encouraged today by all the young people I see,” he said. “It is important that we take the opportunity to share and show the next generation the meaning of service and sacrifice to the country.”

For Post 210 Commander Tom Morse and his wife Audry, a past Post 210 commander, the day was very personal. Their son Paul died as an infant and is buried at the cemetery; both Tom and Audry have plots reserved alongside him.

“He’s actually buried next to one of our best friends’ son, who suffered from PTSD and took his life a year ago,” Tom said. “It means a lot to us. We’re both veterans. It means so much to all of us to honor every veteran out there.”