KILLEEN — More than 11,000 veterans and their family members have found their final earthly resting place at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery.
Since 2007, wreaths have been placed in front of every head stone and on every columbarium as a way to honor the sacrifices they made.
Each year, hundreds of area residents have gathered to prepare, place and retrieve the wreaths.
The tradition was started by Jean Shine, founder of the Friends of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, or Wreaths for Vets.
Saturday marked the final time the traditional holiday decorations would be in place until they are needed once again in November.
Among those who volunteered to remove the wreaths Saturday was Spc. Charles Clark, who is part of the Green to Gold program and currently a cadet in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
Clark said it was his first time volunteering for an event such as this.
“It means that I get to take a moment and remember the fallen troops that fought for our freedom before,” Clark said. “It’s a reminder of why I serve.”
Clark said he joined the Army because of opportunity and family tradition.
“My name is Charles C. Clark V,” he said. “And senior, junior, the third and the fourth they all served in the military.”
Clark said he and his father served in the Army, while his grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather served in the Navy.
“If I am stationed here whenever I graduate, I would like to come back out here and help,” Clark said of the prospect of volunteering for the wreath laying or wreath retrieval in the future.
Clark was one of a few hundred area residents who braved the chilly temperatures Saturday morning.
To prepare the wreaths for safekeeping, bows were discarded and wreaths were placed back on the poles and put into the trucks.
Among those helping facilitate the event was retired Command Sgt. Maj. Earl Williams.
Williams, who lives in Nolanville, was recently honored on Oct. 17 at Texas A&M University-Central Texas for receiving the Congressional Veteran Commendation. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, began the commendation ceremony in 2014.
“I have a lot of friends who are out here — that are buried out here at the cemetery,” Williams said. “And to pay honor and respect to them, I think it’s a great thing that we do to lay these wreaths every year to let them know, and their families know, that they aren’t forgotten.”
Williams was pleased to hear that some of the volunteers Saturday were doing it for the first time.
“That’s amazing, then, that we are reaching out to the community and getting new people to come out and to participate in this,” he said.
Williams served for 30 years in the Army and earned the Purple Heart in Vietnam when his helicopter was shot down. He began a “lifelong devotion” to others wounded while serving, the commendation said.
He currently serves in multiple veteran service organizations, including the Area Veterans Council, Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Prior to volunteers retrieving all the wreaths, Killeen recording artist Jackie Cox sang a song he wrote called “What Love Looks Like.”
At the conclusion of Cox’s song, Killeen city spokeswoman Hilary Shine said, “This is what love looks like.”
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, preparation for the next wreath laying should take place on Nov. 20, with the wreath laying on Nov. 27.