The Zehr and Smallwood families gathered around a white marble headstone Saturday, Christmas wreath in hand. The emotions ran high on the hallowed grounds of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, and the tears flowed.
Jenny Zehr walked away from her father’s grave with tears welling up in her eyes. She buried her father, Staff Sgt. James Hardin Smallwood, 63, on Oct. 29, 2011, and this was her first time laying a wreath at his final resting place.
“This was his favorite time of year, which makes this extra special, and he would have loved to be here laying wreaths with us,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes while reminiscing about her late father. “It’s so impressive to see how this event has grown from one person’s idea to now seeing the community come together to remember our veterans. It’s very touching.”
Thousands of people attended the seventh annual laying of the wreaths Saturday. An escort of 196 motorcyclists followed the 18-wheeler carrying more than 5,000 wreaths into the cemetery.
Friends and families of loved ones buried in the state cemetery were the first ones to lay wreaths.
Kathy Smallwood, who was in that first group, visits her husband’s grave weekly,
“Coming here gives me closeness. He was very much a soldier and he loved his country,” she said, holding back tears. “Even though he’s not physically with us, he’s still with us.”
From newborns to young soldiers and retired veterans, the number of people buried is continuously increasing, but Jean Shine, president of the Friends of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, said her goal of having a wreath on every tombstone for the holidays won’t change.
“This started as a grass-roots effort and I am humbled by the number of people who come out every year on a cold, wintry morning to show support for our veterans,” said Cyd West, event emcee and treasurer for the Friends of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, before turning the microphone over to retired Lt. Gen. David Richard Palmer, former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy.
“I’m more than honored to be with you all today. My very first heroes growing up as young boy in the throws of World War II were veterans,” Palmer said during his keynote address. “Along with the revered veterans of America, my current heroes are those men and women who have been fighting for the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
For more information
For more information on the Friends of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, go to www.wreathsforvets.org.