A few months earlier I received an e-mail from Harvey Holloway of the Bikers For Christ informing me that The Wreaths Across America ceremony would take place at the Georgia Veterans Cemetery off the Vinson Highway on Saturday, December 10. Another ceremony would also take place at the same time at the Georgia Veterans Memorial Cemetery near Glennville located 25 miles west of Fort Stewart. There are 81 Veterans Cemeteries in the United States and two in Saipan and Guam. There are four more under construction in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia. Since 1980, the federal government has awarded grants of more than $480 million to states and territories to establish Veterans Cemeteries. The cemetery in Andersonville has been opened up to veterans of all wars, not just veterans of the Civil War. The laying of the wreath dates back 20 years ago when it originated at Arlington Cemetery. Now it is slowly becoming a tradition at each cemetery.
The Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine provided the seven wreaths to be placed at the markers that held the seal of each branch of military at Milledgeville. The wreaths for the graves are donated by the citizens of Milledgeville each year.
The ride is not only open to veterans but also to motorcyclists and anyone in a cage who wants to come and honor servicemen who gave their lives or served in the defense of their country. The Patriot Guard planned to meet at the Milledgeville Mall parking lot at 10 a.m. This has been the staging area for the ride for the last few years. When I arrived at 9 a.m. there were no more than one or two riders waiting for the arrival of the Patriot Guard. As we were talking about past events at the cemetery, I could see groups of riders steadily coming in. Upon the arrival of Larry Klein and the others from the Patriot Guard, they started to organize the motorcycles and cages into two lines for the ride. It was announced that the Patriot Guard Riders would lead the group to the cemetery, and they would depart at 11 a.m. The laying of the seven wreaths ceremony would take place at noon. The group would escort the van containing 1500 wreaths.
Just before the ride, a safety meeting was held to give each rider tips about riding safely. During the safety meeting Larry Klein told the group of riders that this is the second time in five years that it had not rained. As they pulled out of the parking lot, the Patriot Guard Riders were up front followed by the veterans on their motorcycles. Something new to me was that there were more cages than motorcycles in the procession this year.
The ceremony was opened by the Director of the Georgia Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Russell Feagin. The Presentation of the Colors was by the Augusta Composite Squadron Civil Air Patrol. Mr. Feagin led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance. A very talented young lady from Milledgeville, Liza Merkell, sang the National Anthem as the audience saluted the America flag. This young lady did a great job.
To the front and left of the speaker was a line of servicemen and women, each representing the different branches of the military and the Coast Guard. Larry Klein from the Patriot Guard Riders laid a wreath at the marker of the veterans who are missing in action. As the wreath-laying ceremony started, Russell Feagin called the name of each branch of service, then a representative marched out and laid a wreath, stepped back, then saluted. The first to lay a wreath was an Army Sergeant who laid a wreath at the base of the granite marker that held the seal of the Army. Representatives from the Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard followed. When Larry Klein placed the wreath, it reminded many family members that not everyone came home from the war.
In the closing comments, Russell Feagin stated that this was a place to honor all veterans. The Rifle Salute was by the Georgia Army National Guard Honor Guard, and Taps was played by Louisa Bufford and Michael Feagin. Russell Feagin announced that if anyone would like to help place the wreaths, they should go to the top of the hill. Last year when the memorial ceremony was over, very few individuals stayed to place the wreaths on the graves. This year as I made my way up the hill, I looked over my shoulder and could see the crowd behind me starting to build. The 1500 wreaths were quickly placed on the veterans’ graves. You might think a cemetery is a strange place to get a good feeling for all the family members coming to the graves of their loved ones. If you were present to see the faces of the family members, you would get the same feeling. This is not only a place for veterans to rest but also a place for families to come and honor those who served in the military. The families are proud that the country recognizes what the veterans did for their country. That is why every year I will attend this ceremony. My prayer is that you and everyone else will be attending a wreath-laying ceremony somewhere next year.
By Tommy “Brother Bear” Pittard