Fighting a cold, Dr. Todd Crowder Saturday spoke to the crowd of several hundred volunteers gathered just inside the gates of the cemetery at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Crowder, a professor and track coach at West Point, is one of the organizers behind the academy’s Wreaths Across America event, which was held ahead of the national event so as not to conflict with the upcoming Army-Navy football game.
On the sunny but windy afternoon, Crowder said the slogans of the two organizations connect well: West Point’s is “Duty. Honor. Country.” and Wreaths Across America’s is “Remember. Honor. Teach.”
Crowder added, “Like the loved ones who have gone before us, we are here to do something worthy to assist. We have come together to make a concerted effort to support the initial mission, spirit and vision that Mr. (Morrill) Worcester (founder of Wreaths Across America) believed in and his dreams embodied. That vision has grown to such an extent that this year 1.2 million memorial wreaths will be placed at an astounding 1,100 location in order to honor and pay homage to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country.”
Also speaking at the opening of the event was Candy Martin, the president of the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., the organization for mothers who have lost a son or daughter in service to the country. She and her husband were there to also place a wreath on the grave of their son Tom, who died in October of of 2007 in Iraq.
Martin said she spent many years in the military herself, in the quartermaster corps. She thanked the Truckload Carriers Association and the truck drivers who delivered the wreaths and said that from her time in the military she knows that “nothing moves without trucks.”
Martin will be part of the Wreaths Across America convoy that delivers wreaths from Maine to Arlington Cemetery. Along the way she will hand out buttons that say “Gold Star Mothers (heart symbol) Trucks.”
Earlier in the day, two truckloads of wreaths arrived at West Point. Randy Scott, who drives for Pinnacle Freight Lines, delivered one load of wreaths and Mark Dickinson, a driver for Perdue Farms, brought the other. Scott is a veteran of the British Corps of Royal Engineers, and Dickinson is a Vietnam veteran who created a truck driving school for the Army during that war.
Jackie McNally and her husband Dan work with Crowder to organize the event. She said it would be impossible to accomplish their efforts without the help of the trucking industry.
“We could not do this at West Point if we didn’t have the truckers because we get two full tractor trailer loads of wreaths,” said McNally, who has been involved with the project since its inception. “Without them, any money we raised through donations, we would have had to pay for the trucking, and we couldn’t have purchased any wreaths.”
Volunteers made quick work of unloading wreaths from the two trailers. Students from the West Point Prep School handed boxes of wreaths off the trailers and bucket brigade-like lines of people passed them to where the boxes were opened and the wreaths stacked.
Lt. General Robert Caslen Jr., superintendent of West Point, was at the unloading. He praised and thanked the prep school students, the volunteers and the organizers of the event.
“The people who are interred here died in all of our nation’s wars,” said Caslen, who graduated from West Point in 1975. “I know a number of them. I served with a couple of them. I commanded a number of them as well. For the community to come out like this and to honor them, and to honor their service and to honor their sacrifice by giving a little bit of their day to place these wreaths just says an awful lot.”
Later in the day, volunteers returned to place the wreaths on the 7,045 graves. Some went on the graves of the famous — Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Gen. George Custer, astronaut Lt. Col. Ed White — and some on graves simply marked, “Unknown.”
Dalana Bunstad and her friend Susan Borgsmiller had flown from Plano, Texas to be at Saturday’s event. Bunstad said she knows the cemetery well, as three generations of her family — her great-great grandfather, great-grandfather and grandfather — are all buried here. Her daughter is a 2015 academy graduate; a combat medic who just returned from a nine-month deployment in Kuwait.
She said of the cemetery, “To me, it’s history, and a lot of sacrifice. I like to come and pay respects to the people who sacrificed so much for this country.”
Linda Smigen, was walking through the cemetery with Bunstad, Borgsmiller and Barbara Dolan. Smigen’s oldest son Chaz graduated from West Point in 2013. He’s a first lieutenant deployed to Iraq.
When asked how she was feeling, the Vernon, New Jersey resident said, “I have a pit in my stomach every day. (But) I just go one step in front of the other every day. I know he is doing well. He is doing his job. He is doing what he signed up to do. So as long as he is doing his job, I have faith he will come home safe.”
Later, when wreaths had been laid on graves and most of the volunteers had left, Mark Dickinson fired up his truck and headed out. West Point’s Wreaths Across America for 2016 was in the history books.
That was when Dr. Aundrea Matthews arrived at the cemetery. She had come from another event on the post. Striding quickly across the grass, Dr. Matthews sought one of the newest graves, the one where her grandfather was buried three months to the day earlier.
Sanders H. Matthews Sr. was the last of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-African American cavalry unit founded in 1866. He died in August at the age of 95.
After serving in World War II, Mr. Matthews was stationed at West Point where he taught cavalry maneuvers and was a driver in the motor pool. He was also the first African American police officer in nearby Highland Falls.
Nationally, Wreaths Across America Day is Dec. 17. That’s when volunteers will place wreaths on the graves at Arlington National Cemetery and on the graves of veterans at cemeteries around the country.