Baltimore County cemetery hosts emotional Wreaths Across America event

Rick Martin stood silently, as if at attention, at the grave of his father.

He held a wreath with a red ribbon to be placed on the snow-flecked ground, near the marker bearing the name of World War II veteran Frederick H. Martin Sr., who died in 1992.

“They fought in some pretty bad battles,” said Martin, speaking in halting tones. “He never talked about it.”

Martin, a psychologist at the Perry Point VA Medical Center, was among several hundred people who volunteered Saturday to place wreaths on the graves of 3,500 veterans at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.

It was the first time that the national ceremony — organized by the nonprofit Wreaths Across America organization — was held at the 70-acre cemetery in northern Baltimore County. Similar wreath-laying events were held Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery, around Maryland and at more than 1,200 locations across the country.

The ceremony had a different feel than Memorial Day, which similarly honors fallen military members. Organizers said the holidays can be a joyous but also poignant time for families feeling loss.

“Families typically gather this time of year,” said Steve Wheeler of Phoenix, who organized Saturday’s Dulaney Valley event after raising tens of thousands of dollars from businesses and individuals to cover the costs — $15 per wreath and other expenses. “This is a way to get family and veterans together, to come out here and honor and respect all of these veterans.”

Wheeler noted his own personal connection to the event: Two brothers and his father-in-law were in the service, he said.

The wreaths were delivered by truck and placed in stacks covering 20 yards on the cold ground. Bright ribbons were attached and each wreath was tagged with a message in bright red: “Today, I placed a wreath on the grave of an American hero.”

Volunteers braving the chilly conditions were given specific instructions for placing the wreaths.

“The ribbon will be at the top of the wreath,” Stacy Kidd, Wheeler’s daughter, told a group. “You stand at the site, you step forward one or two paces. You come down on your knee, you place the wreath, you stand up, you salute.”

She asked the volunteers to speak the veteran’s name and say: “Thank you for your service.”

Those instructions were suggested by Wreaths Across America. “We are not here to decorate graves,” Karen Worcester, the executive director, states on the organization’s website. “We're here to remember not their deaths, but their lives.”

Martin said the events of the day — combined with those in his own memory — hit him harder than he had anticipated.

He said his father entered the Army in 1944 and fought with the 2nd Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge, during which he received a Purple Heart for damage to his feet from the frozen conditions.

“Because of the residual effects of the frozen feet, he couldn’t tolerate cold feet,” Martin said. “He had electric socks that he wore to Colts games.”

The Battle of the Bulge, the final major German offensive on the Western Front, began in 1944 on Dec. 16 — the same date of Saturday’s wreath ceremony.

“I realize it’s the 16th and I’m standing in snow and my dad was freezing,” said Martin, his voice breaking with emotion. His 16-year-old daughter, Lyla, hugged him.

Wheeler began organizing the event, which included a color guard and short speeches, after attending a wreath-laying last year at Bel Air Memorial Gardens in Harford County.

“When we drove away from there, I turned to my wife and said, ‘Why doesn’t Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens do this?’ They said, ‘We would be delighted to do it as long as you go out and do all the fund-raising.’ It’s been a 10-month process,” Wheeler said.

“The toughest thing was to create an awareness, because this was the first year. All these people will leave here today and go home and talk about it. And this will just explode. That’s what’s so powerful about this,” he said.

On Saturday morning, before most of the crowd had arrived, Wheeler laid a wreath for a family that recently moved to Georgia. The widow — who contacted Wheeler months ago — had been concerned no one would be there to attend to her husband’s grave site.

“I said, ‘I will take care of your husband,’ ” Wheeler said.

jebarker@baltsun.com

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