National Wreaths Across America Day
By Don Ray
When we came back from Vietnam more than a half-century ago, the first thing my buddies and I did was peel off our uniforms and shed anything related to the military.
Nobody welcomed us home — nobody wanted to know what we had done there.
Most of us tried to pass as civilians — non-veterans.
On Saturday, I attended the “National Wreaths Across America Day” ceremony at the Riverside National Cemetery, and I quickly realized just how much the attitudes of Americans have changed.
Never in my adulthood have I been among so many proud veterans, patriotic supporters, and wide-eyed, young people preparing to serve their country.
How heart-warming it is to know that veterans’ cemeteries across the United States played host to thousands of ordinary Americans, veterans, members of support groups, and even corporate representatives — all determined to ensure that there was a holiday wreath on the grave of every veteran.
Bryan Miza had shown up a day early driving an Amazon truck and trailer filled with thousands of fresh wreaths with red ribbons — wreaths that had begun their journey days earlier from Maine.
“My manager said he’s been keeping an eye on me and my hard work,” he said, “and my dedication at Amazon.”
The manager put Miza’s name on a list of candidates to be given the privilege of volunteering to deliver the wreaths, Miza said, and he came out on top.
They also named him Employee of the Month.
“It’s such an honor, and I’m super happy to do it,” he said. “I got tears in my eyes watching it today.”
Miza grew up in the Koreatown/Pico-Union district of Los Angeles. His parents had fled Guatemala at the height of the turmoil in Central America, he said. He’s proud to have been born here in America — and he enjoys the freedom that military members protect.
“It’s a blessing that I was able to be a part of this.”
Southern California military reserve units had arrived at the cemetery extra early to unpack the hundreds of boxes of wreaths.
Then volunteers from all walks of life assembled at the cemetery’s amphitheater to say prayers for the veterans buried nearby. They witnessed representatives of all branches of the military and related organizations place wreaths before the assembled volunteers.
Dozens of Civil Air Patrol cadets were there, as well as boy scouts, Riverside County Sheriff’s Academy members, and young men and women in uniform who are enrolled in programs to prepare them before enlisting in the United States Navy.
The eager volunteers listened as the official songs of each branch of the military, played. A bagpiper then worked the bellows of his instrument to add the spiritual sound of “Amazing Grace.” A bugler added the somber “Taps.”
Everyone then stood as the honor guards marched off, and Master of Ceremonies Martin Carongcong, himself a retired U.S. Navy Corpsman, dismissed those gathered.
It was time to place the wreaths next to the grave markers of thousands of veterans.
“It’s very near and dear to me,” Carongong said, “Because I have a lot of friends who have lost their lives in wars.”
He told how scores of groups, companies, organizations, and individuals work all year to raise the money to purchase the wreaths for this annual event.
I was astounded to see how many of the volunteers rode their motorcycles to the event from throughout Southern California — they were members of biker groups that devote much of their time to accompanying veterans’ hearses to military funerals.
I had the privilege of chatting with a group of veterans who are part of something I’d never heard of before. They’re members of Mu Beta Phi Military Fraternity Inc. — a Greek fraternity.
Member Roymel Lajames Brooks said he had never heard of such fraternities either, but they turned out to be something he needed when he got out of the Army.
“I was going through some rough patches,” Brooks said, “not only with my inner self but with my spouse. I went to a dark space.”
Then he met fraternity member Kevin Lamar Wheeler, and they started talking.
“We sat on the phone for three hours and I cried,” Brooks said. “I didn’t know how to be a father — I didn’t know how to be a man.
“He said that he’s got my back.”
Brooks introduced me to his fraternity brother to confirm the touching story.
“I was in the military for 25 years,” Wheeler said, “and we’ve always given back. And I joined this fraternity to give back as well.
“During Christmas time, one of our big events is coming out during ‘Wreaths Across America.’”
This was the second year in a row that Wheeler, a retired Army First Sergeant, has made the trek from Hesperia to honor his late grandfather, World War II Army First Sergeant Grover Bookman.
This was an eye-opening day for me. It would be an understatement for me to say that the entire program touched me.
A proud Vietnam Veteran, Don Ray is also a six-decade veteran multimedia reporter, writer, editor and producer for scores of print and visual media outlets. He as reported from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and trained journalists in emerging nations across Africa and Europe. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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