Wreaths 4 Vets: A national ceremony celebrating our local veterans

By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun

Kern River Valley residents will have an opportunity to remember and honor our fallen veterans by laying a wreath on the gravesites of veterans at the Kern River Valley Cemetery as part of commemorative events that will be held across the nation.

“Sarge’s Wreaths 4 Vets” will be held on Saturday, December 14 beginning at 9 a.m. at the Kern River Valley Cemetery, where specially decorated wreaths will be placed on the headstones of veterans as a way to honor and thank them for their service to country.

According to event organizer, Orion Sanders, “Sarge’s Wreaths 4 Vets” is in partnership with “Wreaths Across America”, a coordinating wreath-laying event established to remember our fallen heroes, while honoring those who serve and teaching the next generation the value of freedom. More than 1,600 cemeteries across America will be participating in this year’s ceremonies.

This year will mark the second year that the Kern River Cemetery District will host the wreath-laying ceremony. Sanders said that last year, 267 wreaths were placed on the gravesites of local veterans.

The Kernville resident has been reaching out to community civic organizations and businesses to raise money for the purchase of the wreaths at a cost of $15 per wreath.

And the response has been positive, as Sanders has raised enough money to purchase nearly twice as many wreaths this year, which will allow wreaths to be placed on more than 500 gravesites at Kern Valley’s cemetery.
While that is an impressive increase over last year, Sanders said it will still only cover one-half of the number of veterans buried at the local cemetery.
“We have 991 identified headstones of veterans at our cemetery,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ involvement with veteran-based projects goes back several years. He served as President of the Bakersfield National Cemetery Support group; an organization that supports projects not funded by National Veteran organizations. He has been participating in Wreaths Across America since it began at the Bakersfield National Cemetery.

It was after attending the ceremony at Bakersfield National Cemetery that Sanders started the local non-profit “Sarge’s Wreaths 4 Vets” as a way to honor and remember our local veterans.

“We had some extra wreaths one year, so I grabbed four wreaths to put on the gravesites of some friends of mine who are buried at our cemetery,” Sanders said. “As I walked around the Kern Valley cemetery, I realized that we have a lot of vets buried here.”

Sanders received assistance from the Kern River Valley Cemetery District to help him determine the number of veterans at the local cemetery. And what he found was surprising.

“We have a higher ratio of veterans at our cemetery than at other cemeteries,” he said, adding that a majority of veterans are World War II vets.

Wreaths Across America was started by Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company. In 1992, Worcester found that he had a surplus of wreaths and decided to use the wreaths in a way to honor the country’s veterans. Arrangements were made for the wreaths to be placed at Arlington National Cemetery.

As the wreath-laying event grew each year, businesses and organizations stepped up to help including the American Legion and VFW Posts. Worcester began sending seven wreaths to every state, one for each branch of the military, POWs, and MIAs.

In 2005, a photograph of the wreath adorned headstones at Arlington was circulated on social media, giving the commemorative wreath-laying national attention. And by 2006, simultaneous wreath-laying ceremonies were held at over 150 locations around the country. By 2008, over 300 locations held wreath-laying ceremonies in every state, Puerto Rico and 24 overseas cemeteries, with over 100,000 wreaths being placed on veterans’ graves.

In 2014, Wreaths Across America and its network of volunteers laid over 700,000 memorial wreaths at 1,000 locations in the United States, including ceremonies at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, as well as Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and the sites of the September 11 tragedies.

Locally, the Wreaths 4 Vets ceremony will begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 14 at the Kern Valley Cemetery’s Veteran’s Memorial Wall. Toward the conclusion of the ceremony, Sanders said he will invite family members who have loved ones buried at the cemetery to take a wreath and place it on their veterans’ gravesite.

The public will then be invited to help place the remaining wreaths.
“The hard part is deciding who will get a wreath since we will only have wreaths for half of the veterans,” Sanders said. “We have 87 vets in the old cemetery, so we can cover all of the vets in the older section of the cemetery.”

From there, Sanders said he will ask that the wreaths be spread out across the newer section of the cemetery.

Although wreaths are no longer available for purchase, area residents can participate by helping to place the wreaths on veterans’ gravesites.

The wreaths will arrive by truck on Dec. 13 and escorted by the local American Legion Riders Post 711. They will remain on the gravesites for one month.