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JBLM takes part in Wreaths Across America remembrance

Volunteers lay wreaths, honor fallen and missing at Camp Lewis Cemetery ceremony

Col. (R) Michor Gentmann said the ceremony “is a great feeling” for retired military. Photo credit: John Ferri

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It was a somber yet celebratory scene Saturday morning at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) -- chill air still hanging in the wooded grove into which the small Camp Lewis Cemetery is set. Echoes of snare drums lightly repeated back from woods encircling the carpet of green lawn. The bugler's "Taps" rang out plaintively through the towering evergreens.

Solemn, proud, patriotic words echoed across the glenn, as well.

"The wreaths we will soon place at each headstone represent our nation's commitment to remember our fallen," said JBLM Garrison commander Col. Nicole Lucas. "These remembrance wreaths honor those who have served, and they serve to honor our military families, as well. As people gather in military cemeteries nationwide today, I want to say thank you to all of our servicemembers -- past and present -- who have secured our many freedoms."

Deceased and missing members from all branches of the armed services were honored for the third consecutive year at JBLM as part of the national Wreaths Across America Day recognition program.

As hundreds of family members and volunteers arrived for the 9 a.m. ceremony and wreath laying, they picked up wreaths from the nearly 1,000 awaiting in boxes, and got their cemetery section assignments from coordinators volunteering with Boy Scout Troop 62.

Everyone in attendance then lined the cemetery's main drive as the ROTC Color Guard from Pacific Lutheran University marched with the Washington state and United States flags. Next in the procession were the Sons of the American Revolution Drum Corps, Alexander Hamilton Chapter, in smart period costumes. An invocation and a minute of silence were followed by the singing of the National Anthem.

Remarks also were given by Pam Gassman, Regent of the Mary Ball Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Gassman and the Tacoma chapter were instrumental in bringing the wreath tradition to JBLM as part of the national Wreaths Across America organization.

Similar celebrations took place Dec. 15 throughout the country at military grave sites, including at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where the wreaths with red bows were laid at the inaugural Wreaths Across America event in 1992. Today, more than 1,000 locations take part.

Around the graveyard's central flagpole, wreaths were placed on metal stands by active-duty and retired servicemembers, each honoring their respective branch. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine were remembered. Additionally, POW-MIAs and the Unknown Soldier were recognized during this part of the ceremony with a wreath presented by Col. (R) Michor Gentmann.

"It's really satisfying for former military," Gentmann noted prior to the ceremony. "A few years ago, it wasn't like this. It's a great feeling."

He said the mood has shifted over the years regarding honor and remembrance for veterans and the fallen. Returning from Vietnam, he recalled, was perhaps the low point. There have been ups and downs over time, but in the past several years, he said, he has seen and felt a shift to the other end of the spectrum.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, "Taps" was played. Then, as volunteers dispersed throughout the grounds, they were urged to say the name on each headstone aloud as they laid bright green wreaths gently at the base of every white marble marker.

CW5 (R) Jennifer Redfern did so as she laid a wreath for Otto M. Hansen, CW3, 1899-1981, who served in both World Wars. Retired Army herself, Redfern said this is the second year she has honored the veteran.

Redfern, who is also a member of the Mary Ball Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, said she has no direct connection to Hansen. She pointed out that the role of volunteers is to continue honoring those who no longer have living relatives, or any nearby, to visit their final resting place to leave a wreath.

As a veteran, she said, "It's honoring our fellow servicemembers who are no longer with us." 

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