The San Benito County Chamber of Commerce hosted the National Wreaths Across America Day with its wreath-laying ceremony on Dec. 18 at Calvary Cemetery in Hollister.
Approximately 50 members of the community attended the ceremony and assisted in laying the wreaths at gravesites located at 1100 Hillcrest Road.
The Hollister Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9242 Honor Guard led the ceremony with the presentation of colors, followed by the national anthem sung by this reporter. Congressman Jimmy Panetta, Assemblyman Robert Rivas and a field representative for state Senator Anna Caballero, Marisa Hernandez, were the guest speakers.
Jen Rodriguez, San Benito County Chamber of Commerce director of tourism, hospitality and events, said the Calvary Cemetery is the official designated veterans burial site for San Benito County.
“We have veterans buried at other locations, but we have to work collaboratively to focus on the one that has the most, unfortunately,” she explained.
Since the chamber began organizing the event in 2017, Rodriguez said the number of veterans receiving wreaths has more than doubled.
“It was somewhere around 275 to 300 veterans, and now we’re up to 670 veterans,” Rodriguez said. “We want to make sure we’re always remembering and honoring and respecting them. This number has grown, so you can imagine each year it gets tougher and tougher to sell the wreaths. We barely made it [this year].”
The chamber works throughout the year to raise money to put a wreath on the headstone of each departed service member. Rodriguez said that each wreath costs $15, and that the money goes directly to Wreaths Across America to keep the program running. A non-profit organization that was founded to continue the annual wreath-laying ceremony, Wreaths Across America was started by Maine businessman Morrill Worcester at Arlington National Cemetery in 1992.
The mission of National Wreaths Across America Day—to remember, honor and teach—is carried out “by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as at more than 2,500 additional locations in all 50 U.S. states, at sea and abroad,” according to its website.
“We come together one day in December to remember and to honor those who have served,” Rivas said. “But this is also a day where we teach; where we teach of the importance of their service, the importance of their contributions to this great country—to all of the rights, freedoms that we all get to enjoy. So certainly this is one day where we get together to do this. But this is something we must do everyday.”
Panetta said the organization’s mission to remember, honor and teach has become increasingly successful, noting that the number of Wreaths Across America ceremonies has grown since the start of the pandemic.
He said that in December 2019, there were 1,200 ceremonies in the United States, and that this week, there are more than 2,700 ceremonies.
“The teaching moment is very important, especially with what our country is facing right now,” he said. “We have an obligation to show up, so that we can live out the legacy of these men and women who are interred here.”
Congressman Panetta also touched on the Afghanistan War. A veteran of that war, he said was “heartbroken” and “humiliated” to witness the United States’ chaotic exit from that country.
“America must not reduce the service of 775,000 men and women in that country down to one picture of C-17 on an airport runway at the Kabul airport,” he said. “Just because we have departed Afghanistan, it does not mean the departure of such sacrifice and service from Americans from our collective American memory.”
He then introduced the VFW Post 9242 members who honored deceased veterans by being the first to place wreaths on tombstones.
Post 9242 Commander George Nava and post members Adam Mendolla, Chuck Spandri, Maria Spandri, Ryan De La Rosa, Mel Angel, Joe Ortiz and Bernie Ramirez placed wreaths for each branch of service on the graves of veterans. Taps was concurrently performed by Post 9242 member Brian Morse.
At the end of the ceremony, attendees were invited to take at least two wreaths to place on headstones.
Steven Campos, who served with the U.S Air Force in the Iraq War, was among them.
A new member of Post 9242, it was Campos’ first year participating in the event.
“I wanted to come out and support them,” he said, also noting that he will be joining Post 9242’s Honor Guard at its next ceremony. He also said that since leaving the Air Force, he is now receiving support from veteran services.
“If other people can do it, I’ll figure it out, too,” he said.
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