Wreaths Across America was a spectacular event this year that started long before Saturday, December 16. Harry Rathsam has been the Volunteer Coordinator for Long Island National Cemetery since the beginning of the program in 2006. It happened quite accidentally when he called for more information about Wreaths Across America which was scheduled to take place in five days. He was told that there was no one responsible for one of the largest veterans’ cemeteries in the country. Harry stepped up and grew the program from that day.
In 2006 about 20 people gathered to place 5 wreaths on the graves of some of our nation’s heroes. When the Manhasset American Legion Auxiliary began to participate, the number of wreaths had grown to about 125 with about 75 participants. Gradually, the numbers began to increase and more groups, including Manhasset’s Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, participated. Last year, in icy and rainy weather, approximately 200 participants placed 3,000 wreaths. Harry then set a goal of 5,000 wreaths for 2017. This sounds like a tremendous number until you research the size of Long Island National and realize that it contains approximately 340,000 grave sites. After he set this goal, Harry was approached by the Wreaths Across America organization and was interviewed by a staff member on the 72nd day before Wreaths Across America 2017. His interview can be seen on Facebook.
Following the interview, wonderful things began to happen. By December 8th more than 450 volunteers were registered to help at Wreaths Across America on December 16th. Then Harry received information that more than 25,000 wreaths were scheduled for Long Island National Cemetery. Amazingly, this number changed on December 15th, the day before the event. There were 45,000 wreaths arriving at Long Island National Cemetery! In addition, a banquet was planned for that evening at the Long Island Marriott. Pat O’Brien and Elizabeth Parrella, the President and Vice President of the Manhasset American Legion Auxiliary, along with American Legion member, Donald O’Brien, were privileged to attend. A representative of Wreaths Across America served as the emcee for the evening and introduced some of the many corporations and trucking companies that so generously volunteer to assist in the distribution of wreaths. The professional drivers scheduled for the following morning also attended. The keynote speaker was General Raymond Fox and other speakers included a Gold Star Mother, Emily Torres, who said she would gladly tell us about her son, if you asked how he lived, not how he died. Active military personnel were also in attendance. One thing that was very clear throughout the evening was that those present proudly lived this year’s Wreaths Across America theme, “I’m an American. Yes, I am!”
The next morning temperatures hovered around the freezing mark but did not stop the enthusiasm of the approximately 800 volunteers who came to honor some of the nation’s heroes. Cheers arose among the crowd as the nine tractor trailers entered the cemetery with the wreaths. In that crowd were Pat and Donald O’Brien, Elizabeth Parrella, Carol-Anne Condon and parents of Boy Scouts from Troop 97, Ann Marie Moschitta, Linda and Martin Clarke, Elizabeth Miller, Selva Venkatesan, Anja D’Angelo and Michael Dea. They brought their sons, Matthew, Martin, Steven, Sharath, Bharath, James, and Andrew to teach them about remembering and honoring those who have served in the military and, in too many instances, have died for the freedoms so often taken for granted.
At noon Harry Rathsam conducted the service and again reminded everyone of the importance of remembering our fallen U.S. veterans, honoring those who serve, and teaching our children the value of freedom. Harry again quoted President Ronald Reagan, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” He also reminded everyone to speak the name of the veteran when placing a wreath at a grave-site. He mentioned a basic tenet of Wreaths Across America, “A person dies twice: once when they take their final breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken.” As is the custom, those attending were given the opportunity to share the name of those who had served or were serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Then the privilege of emptying the trucks and laying the wreaths began. Each wreath was marked with a tag reading, “Today I placed a wreath on the grave of an American Hero.” While walking through the cemetery, the names of those heroes who served could be heard clearly as the volunteers remembered them before placing a wreath. Two such heroes were Andrew A. Nudge, Jr. and Rexford Lloyd Green, both of whom had been killed in action during World War II. Their names appear on the WW II website, so they will be remembered. Many others are only remembered through the placing of a wreath.
By 2:30 pm all the wreaths had been placed and the trucks were back on the road along with the many volunteers who had so enthusiastically participated in what is always a very emotional event. But 45,000 wreaths are only enough to honor less than 15 percent of the veterans at Long Island National Cemetery. Please help make 2018 an even bigger event by your presence and your wreath donations. To learn more about Wreaths Across America or to become a donor, visit the website at www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/. For information about other programs supported by the American Legion Auxiliary, please contact Pat O’Brien at 516-850-5702 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
President Pat O’Brien, Vice President and Treasurer Elizabeth Parrella and Legionnaire Donald O’Brien attended the Wreaths Across America Dinner
The Boy Scouts joined the American Legion Auxiliary at Wreaths Across America
Pat and Donald O’Brien and Pat O’Brien and Carol-Anne Condon
Elizabeth emptied trucks
Martin carried wreaths for placement
Liz and Steven place a wreath