Wreath ceremony a time to pay tribute to those in armed forces

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 10, 2011

By Hugh Fisher
SALISBURY — Away from the commercial hustle and bustle of holiday time, a group of citizens stopped Saturday to pay tribute to the fallen, the missing and those currently serving in the U.S. armed forces.
The annual Wreaths Across America ceremony started at noon under a crisp blue sky at the Salisbury National Cemetery annex off Statesville Boulevard.
Other than the speeches, followed by three rifle volleys and the playing of “Taps,” the only sound was the snap and flutter of row after row of American flags.
Wreaths Across America began at Arlington National Cemetery in 1992.
And the local observance began with a handful of people at the historic National Cemetery, but has grown.
Jean Kiger of Lexington and Linda Merritt of Winston-Salem travel to the annual ceremony to decorate their father’s grave.
In addition to a wreath, they brought Christmas flowers.
John P. Gavlik, Jr. died in August 2005. Kiger said he was a U.S. Marine, a member of the Marine Raiders who fought in the Pacific in World War II.
“He never spoke about it,” Kiger said.
But his service inspired Kiger’s son to join the USMC, where he served two tours of duty in Iraq.
Asked what she was feeling after the ceremony, tears came to Merritt’s eyes. “Pride, pride and honor,” she said.
“The numbers have grown,” said Kiger, who said she has been attending since the ceremonies began at the historic cemetery.
“It’s amazing what they continue to do to support the veterans,” Merritt said.
The ceremony began with a moment of silence for those who have fallen and those who currently serve.
Ronnie Faggart, state captain for the Patriot Guard of North Carolina, was the afternoon’s emcee.
He noted that Saturday’s ceremony was conducted simultaneously with observances worldwide, including at American cemeteries in Europe where other American soldiers rest.
All around the ceremony were members of the Patriot Guard Riders and other veterans’ motorcycle clubs, members of the Civil Air Patrol’s Iredell composite squadron from Statesville and JROTC cadets from Salisbury and West Rowan high schools.
The Patriot Guard members held American flags.
Faggart reminded the audience of the freedoms citizens in the U.S. enjoy – to teach their children, to travel from coast to coast without having to ask permission, to vote to elect their leaders.
To the veterans, Faggart said, “America has always been the first nation to stand up for the freedom of people around the world. We are here today to say thank you, and we are honored to know you.”
Wreaths were placed in honor of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.
Another wreath honored prisoners of war and those missing in action – over 90,000 in all.
He encouraged the audience to lay one of the hundreds of donated evergreen wreaths at a headstone, then try to learn something about that servicemember.
“They were real Americans. They were, and are, more than just a statistic. They are more than names on a stone,” Faggart said.
Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson said that the wreaths represent an honor which future generations must be taught to appreciate.
“May we always remember and pay tribute on this day to those brave men and women who are standing watch and keeping our democratic way of life,” Woodson said.
After the ceremony, Faggart said the effort was as large as ever, but there is still a long way to go.
He said there were over 4,425 graves in Salisbury National Cemetery.
Some 700 veterans were laid to rest there in 2011 alone, he said.
“Our goal is to increase each year until we can place a holiday wreath for every person resting here,” Faggart said.
Those who participated said they left feeling humbled.
One of the youngest, Jazmine Mumpower, age 7, came to the ceremony with her grandfather, Patriot Guard member Daryl York.
She stood and held a flag during the ceremony alongside York.
“I like being at Patriot Guard missions,” Mumpower said.
“It’s an honor to have her here,” York said. “This is our legacy.”
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.