Baltimore County man's mission is to honor veterans through wreath-laying ceremony

After finding no local wreath-laying ceremonies honoring deceased veterans close to home last year, a Baltimore County man has raised the money to place wreaths on the graves of each of the 3,500 veterans buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

The event organized by Steven Wheeler, of Phoenix, will be hosted on behalf of Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit that coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies each December at veterans’ graves in the U.S., at sea and abroad, according to its website.

On what it calls National Wreaths Across America Day, the nonprofit carries out its mission to remember and honor veterans by coordinating a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia. On the same day as that main event, volunteers at more than 1,200 other cemeteries carry out similar ceremonies in their communities. This year’s event is set for Dec. 16.

The ceremony will be the first of its kind at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, organizers said.

“We want to honor these veterans at Dulaney, just as others have been honored at other cemeteries in the past,” Wheeler said. “I wanted to be part of that initiative.”

The idea for hosting an event at the 70-acre cemetery in Timonium on the same day as the national wreath laying in Arlington, came to Wheeler after he discovered last year that the closest such events to his north Baltimore County home were at Baltimore National Cemetery, in Catonsville, and Bel Air Memorial Gardens, in Harford County.

He and his wife, Sharon Wheeler, attended the Bel Air wreath laying last December but drove away feeling as if they wanted to do something more, Wheeler said, adding that he asked Dulaney officials if he could host a wreath-laying ceremony at the cemetery.

“They told me they would be thrilled to host the ceremony if I did all the fundraising,” Wheeler said, adding that he agreed to the challenge.

The partnership was a welcome enterpise, said Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens general manager Amy Shimp, adding that the cemetery has two large sections containing veterans’ graves.

“We’ve often thought about how we would like to do something for our veterans, but it was such a large undertaking that we didn’t know how to execute [it],” Shimp said. “When Wreaths Across America reached out to us we thought it was a perfect fit and we’re really excited about it.”

The ceremony has drawn a lot of interest from the public, Shimp said, adding that cemetery officials have received more calls than they expected about the event.

“I think this will be something we want to do annually,” Shimp said.

In January, Wheeler began to raise money from veterans groups and private donors to cover the costs of the wreaths.

The wreaths cost about $15 each — or $52,500 to cover all of the graves at Dulaney — he said, adding that he has solicited enough to cover the entire bill.

Though not a veteran himself, his two late brothers were in the Navy and Army, Wheeler said.

After a short cemetery honoring the veterans buried in the cemetery, friends, family members and other volunteers will lay wreaths upon the graves, Wheeler said.

Brian Riley, of Cockeysville, has volunteered at wreath-laying ceremonies held at Baltimore National Cemetery in Catonsville and Annapolis National Cemetery for the past six years and will be the master of ceremonies in Timonium this year.

The retired soldier met Wheeler at this year’s Memorial Day service at Dulaney Valley Gardens and was excited to get involved at a location close to his home, he said.

“I think it’s a great way to honor all of our veterans from all branches of the service, to remember their sacrifice during the holidays,” Riley said.

A local color guard will present the colors at noon. Following the start of the service, an Air Force chaplain will read the invocation and there will be special remembrance songs performed.

Family members of those buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens and a representative from each branch of service will be asked to step forward to place wreaths at their loved ones’ graves first. When those wreaths are laid, volunteers will be instructed to lay the rest throughout the cemetery.

The ceremony is free and open to the public.

“People ask me, ‘Why [I do this]’and I say, ‘Do I need to answer that question?’” Wheeler said. “It’s because of the veterans. I’m just a citizen, and I’m very passionate.”

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