Wesley Chapel resident Randy Lewer has led volunteers in placing wreaths at the graves of thousands of U.S. military veterans buried at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell since 2006.

Before Christmas every year, volunteers across the country visit national cemeteries where U.S. military veterans are buried to honor them by placing a Christmas wreath on their graves, in an effort called Wreaths Across America.

One of the largest Wreaths Across America programs in the country takes place tomorrow morning just a short drive north of Wesley Chapel at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell (which is located in Sumter County, northeast of Brooksville).

Florida National Cemetery is the final resting place of more than 100,000 U.S. military veterans and 30,000 spouses.

Wesley Chapel resident and Vietnam veteran Randy Lewer has been leading the charge to honor the men and women buried at Florida National Cemetery since 2006. Back then, he and a couple of his buddies from the U.S. Military Vets Motorcycle Club held a small, brief ceremony, where just a few people gathered in the rain.

Now, Randy continues to spend his time, energy and resources every year to be sure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to live out the mission statement of Wreaths Across America, which is, “Remember our fallen U.S. veterans, honor those who serve, and teach your children the value of freedom.”

Last year, more than 8,000 volunteers helped Randy place 27,000 wreaths throughout Florida National Cemetery.

This year, he says, the goal is to place 30,000 wreaths, and up to 10,000 volunteers are expected to help place them on the graves, then participate in a ceremony that honors and remembers U.S. military service men and women.

Since Lewer hasn’t ever received enough wreaths to place one on each and every grave in the cemetery, ceremonial wreaths are presented during the ceremony to honor all members of the military. Seven ceremonial wreaths honor the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Air Force, POW (Prisoners of War)/MIA (Missing In Action) and Merchant Marines.

This year, an additional ceremonial wreath will be placed by “Gold Star” families, which are families who have lost a loved one during their military service. While the wreath will honor all veterans, it is a special tribute recognizing those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Collecting the funds to purchase 30,000 wreaths is a year-round undertaking for Randy. As of our press time, about 28,000 wreaths have been sponsored.

“Since we started in 2006, we have always grown from the prior year,” Randy says. He says he wasn’t sure they would be able to top last year’s number, but this year’s sponsorships have now surpassed 2017’s.

Many local organizations and community groups, such as the Boy and Cub Scouts, Civil Air Patrol, and even companies, ask friends, family and neighbors to sponsor the wreaths for $15 each.

A Family Tradition…

Monica Riley is the coordinator for American Heritage Girls (AHG) Troop FL2212 at Faith Baptist Church in Wesley Chapel. Her troop sold 75 wreath sponsorships to support Wreaths Across America.

“Placing wreaths on the graves of soldiers is an amazing way to teach our girls to remember our fallen heroes,” she says.

Monica, who has lived in Wesley Chapel for 13 years, says she will be attending the wreath-laying event this year for the third time.

“My father-in-law was on the Battleship Texas on D-Day,” says Monica, explaining why her family first got involved with Wreaths Across America, “so it was important for us to teach our daughter, who was then 11, about his sacrifice by honoring him with a wreath.”

Randy says groups like Monica’s are essential to the massive effort that it takes to purchase that many wreaths for the graves.

“People think, ‘My one wreath won’t make a difference,’ but the one-wreath-at-a-time sponsorships account for at least 90 percent of what we bring in,” says Randy.

He says he gets a couple of corporate donations that purchase a thousand wreaths at a time, but most wreaths are purchased by individuals or groups that typically solicit sponsorships one or a few at a time.

Randy hopes that after people sponsor a wreath or two, they’ll come out to see the wreath-laying and the ceremony for themselves to help them really see what happens on this special day.

“When I was in the service, I was in the color guard and participated in funerals,” explains Randy. “The saddest ones were when there was no one there except a funeral director. That stuck with me.”

He adds that members of “the greatest generation” from World War II may be no longer remembered because they have no surviving family members, or that their families are too far away to visit them.

“So it’s kind of sad, but it’s also kind of cool that we can do this,” Randy says. “We can honor them so they are not forgotten.”

Wreaths can be sponsored year-round. Wreaths purchased now would start the fundraising toward the event in 2019, which Randy says would be a huge help to kick off the efforts and ensure the event is successful next year.

 

This year’s event takes place on Saturday, December 15, at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell (6502 SW 102nd Ave.). Wreath-laying begins at 10:30 a.m. and the hour-long ceremony starts at 11:45 a.m. Event organizers encourage guests to arrive between 9 and 9:30 a.m., due to heavy traffic into the cemetery.

For additional information about Wreaths Across America or to sponsor one or more wreaths, visit WreathsAcrossAmerica.org/FL0021.

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