(Photo by Lucas Carter)

A wreath for every veteran: 'a dream come true'

Following a reorganization of The American Legion Department of Wisconsin’s District 8, American Legion Riders Ray and Evelyn McSherry were looking for a project the district’s Legion Riders could take on. Riding past the Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in King, the pair came up in the fall of 2012 with the idea of bringing the Wreaths Across America program to the cemetery.

In just six weeks, the husband-and-wife team led an effort to raise enough funds to place 400 wreaths on gravestones at the cemetery. But that wasn’t enough for either of them. They wanted a wreath for every veteran’s gravesite.

Mission accomplished.

On Dec. 15, 2018, more than 500 volunteers including family and friends of the veterans buried there, placed 7,274 wreaths at the cemetery – one for every gravesite.

“Everybody said I was nuts and that this would never happen,” said Ray, District 8 Legion Riders president, a past two-term state ALR director and a member of Palmer-Ritchie-Thomas Post 153. “It’s so gratifying to see it done. To remember all these vets. It’s a dream come true.”

District 8’s Legion Riders again spearheaded the effort that led to raising more than $70,000 to supply wreaths for the 7,274 graves – some dating back to veterans of the Civil War. Donations came from American Legion Family members from all over the department. District 8’s Legion Riders raised more than $30,000 through a gun raffle.

“It’s been getting the word out: publicity, talking to people, mailings,” said Evelyn, who serves as District 8’s ALR secretary and is a member of Auxiliary Unit 153. “I contact local organizations and go out and do a presentation and speak to the people in the community. We’ve gotten the cooperation of (the American Legion Family) across the state, and they’ve been very, very supportive.”

Evelyn said Wisconsin’s Legion Riders have taken on the cause and run with it. “Throughout the state, wherever we go, they’re always talking Wreaths Across America,” she said. “They’re speaking to other districts and other individuals about our Wreaths Across America program. It just pleases me to have our members so proud of an endeavor that they’ve taken on and see it accomplished.”

The public also has gotten involved. Chloe Heisler, a 16-year-old junior at Weyauwega-Fremont High School, has been raising money for District 8’s Wreaths Across America effort for four years. She estimates she’s raised more than $10,000 during that time, going door to door to solicit donations from area businesses.

“My grandpa is a Vietnam veteran, and I just want the opportunity, when he passes, to be able to honor him,” Heisler said. “And I know that a lot of other people would like to honor their family members as well. Seeing the turnout here was just amazing.”

Department American Legion Family leadership – including National Executive Committeeman Robert Shappell, Department Commander Frank Kostka and Auxiliary President Char Kiesling – helped place wreaths, as did American Legion Family members from all over the state.

Eric Brunner, an American Legion Rider from Post 114 in Eagle River, said a new national cemetery will be opening near the post in either late 2019 or early 2020. Brunner said District 11’s American Legion Riders want to bring Wreaths Across America to the new cemetery when it opens and were in attendance to observe the event.

But they also were there to participate. “Each (wreath) I lay I say ‘Thank you for your service,’” Brunner said. “What we’re doing is honoring men and women who served. It’s just another way of remembering them and honoring them for their service.”

Following the placing of the wreaths, a ceremony took place that included laying wreaths for all five branches of the military, the Merchant Marines, POWs and MIAs, and Gold Star mothers. Two Gold Star mothers were in attendance: Elizabeth Kryst and Beth Karlson.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Leo Gonnering, a member of American Legion Riders Chapter 339 and the master of ceremonies, said those gathered at the Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery were there not to remember the veterans’ deaths, “but their lives. Each wreath is a gift of appreciation from a grateful nation. These (wreaths) … honor those who have served or are serving in the armed forces, and to their families who endured sacrifices every day on our behalf.”

Kostka said he was proud of the entire department for helping make covering every grave a reality, providing another day to remember those who have sacrificed so much for the nation.

“Our veterans are not remembered enough,” Kostka said. “Every veteran here gave part of their life for our country. And some of the veterans, they don’t have any family (or) friends to visit them. This will be the second time this year somebody will visit their grave, see their name and just think about their service.”

Kiesling said the event should serve as a way to educate others about the need to remember the nation’s veterans. “We thank all of those who have given their lives for our freedoms,” she said. “We need to teach others of the importance of those sacrifices … and we continue to do that, as we are doing today.”

After the wreaths were placed, the ceremony finished and the cemetery mostly empty, Evelyn had a chance to reflect on what she and the other Legion Riders had helped make happen for those buried at the cemetery.

“Once everyone has left and it gets quiet, Ray and I always take a ride through the cemetery to see because we don’t get a chance to see what’s going on during the actual wreath laying,” she said. “It brings us to tears, it actually does, to see this entirely covered.

“And I keep thinking that right across the street is (the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King) with many of our veterans living there. And they have the opportunity to look out over the cemetery and see this covered, and to know that they won’t be forgotten.”