WaKEENEY — Gunfire from a three-volley salute echoed across the rolling hills, followed by taps played and then sung under a clear blue sky at the Kansas Veterans Cemetery here Saturday morning, much as it did across the country in the 26th anniversary of Wreaths Across America.
Saturday marked the 13th year the Veterans Cemetery at WaKeeney has participated in Wreaths Across America, which started gaining national momentum shortly after the cemetery was dedicated in 2004.
Wreaths Across America has its origins in a Maine wreath company whose owner, as a boy, had taken a memorable trip to Arlington National Cemetery.
When his company had a surplus of wreaths at Christmastime in 1992, he arranged to have them placed on graves at Arlington. The practice continued quietly, but in 2005, a photo of the wreaths in the snow at the cemetery received national attention, and the idea spread.
Today, the non-profit Wreaths Across America coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies at more than 1,000 locations with more than 700,000 wreaths.
Heidi Goff, manager of the Veterans Cemeteries at WaKeeney and Fort Dodge, said Saturday enough wreaths had been donated to place on all the grave markers in both cemeteries and those at the Kansas Soldiers’ Home at Fort Dodge.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., spoke of the importance of honoring veterans like his own father, a World War II veteran.
“Today, to him and to all those who are no longer with us, we say thank you for your service, we respect you, we love you. And we say that to the family members who’ve lost something in their lives by the absence of their loved one,” he said.
Moran said he will return to Washington on Sunday and will take with him the Kansas values and patriotism on display during the ceremony.
“But I will especially take back with me tomorrow the idea that those we honor here today, those who served our nation, did not do so for any partisan or personal gain.
“No one talked about being a Republican serviceman or a Democrat servicewoman. It was about how can we make certain that life at home is safe and secure and how can we make the world a better place for all,” he said.
“I’ll take that back to Washington, D.C., with the reminder that we ought to do our job better than we do and set aside the division, the politics and the partisanship and make sure what these men and women sacrificed for is honored today and that we live in a safe and secure and more free nation and world. God bless those we recognize today,” he said.
Following Moran’s remarks, representatives of each branch of the military and one representing prisoners of war and those missing in action laid a ceremonial wreath in front of the pavilion. An honor guard from the Hays Veterans of Foreign Wars fired the three-volley salute and played Taps. Lt. Col. Errol Wuertz of the Kansas Wing Civil Air Patrol also sang Taps.
Family members then chose a wreath from a trailer to lay at the grave markers of their loved ones. Members of the American Legion Riders and other volunteers took wreaths to the graves of those not represented by family.
Veterans and family members expressed gratitude for the ceremony and for being able to have their veterans honored in a cemetery close to home.
Irene Dirks, WaKeeney, and her family placed a wreath on the grave of her father, Glen Cookson, a Korean War veteran, and her mother, Darlene.
“He requested to be buried here,” she said of her father. “It was very important to him.”
She said the ceremony was touching, and, with a son in the Air Force, it was overwhelming to her to think that some of those buried in the WaKeeney cemetery were still young when they died.
Her son was scheduled to arrive later Saturday from Andrews Air Force Base.
“We’ll come out here later this afternoon as a family when we’re all here,” she said.
Roselma Farmer, Ransom, didn’t have any family graves on which to lay a wreath, but she was moved the ceremony as well. Now in her 80s, she was an operating room nurse in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.
“It’s tremendous. People are recognizing our veterans, the ones that stood and gave all,” she said.
“It’s nice we have this here,” she said of the cemetery. “We don’t have to go to Dodge or Topeka or down the way. We have an area we can bury our fellas here.”