Wreaths Across America Comes Home by ShareGood Contributor Joe Dean

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Remember. Honor. Teach.

In 1992, Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company realized he had an opportunity to honor our Nation’s veterans. Nearing the end of the Holiday Season, Worcester and volunteers quietly placed surplus wreaths in one of the often neglected, older sections of Arlington National Cemetery. For 13 years, the humble tribute continued in relative obscurity until this iconic photo of the snow covered tombstones adorned with the wreaths went viral on the internet. Today, Wreaths Across America and its national network of volunteers place nearly 1 Million memorial wreaths at over 1,000 locations across the USA and in other parts of the world. In 2014, the grass-roots group reached a milestone, covering Arlington National Cemetery with the placement of 226,525 wreaths.

The enormity of this national effort is awe-inspiring. Yet, as we learned in the Honor Flight journey, every veteran, every tombstone, represents a personal story. One looks out over the 1000’s of grave sites and it is nearly overwhelming. Almost too much. Still, when Wisconsin’s own, Woods National Cemetery joined the national tribute, I knew I had to be a part of it. Thus, in honor of my WWII father, my brother Andy and I – – along with friends from Stars and Stripes Honor Flight – – found ourselves in the midst of a Winter Storm Watch and 100’s of awesome families and patriots.

‘Humbling” barely begins to describe what it is like to stand In the shadow of the old Soldiers Home and the 66-foot-granite Civil War “Soldiers and Sailors” monument. Here lie Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War: Ordinary Seaman James K. Duncan, Private Milton Matthews, Corporal Winthrop D. Putnam, Private Lewis A. Rounds and Boatswain’s Mate Michael McCormick. Doctors, who worked at the old Soldier’s Home are buried here along with their families. The largest monument is for General Kilburn Knox, who passed away on April 17,1891.The first Vietnam War casualty buried in the cemetery is Private Duncan F. Krueger. Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry.

“A person dies twice: once when they take their final breath and later the last time their name is spoken. When we lay wreaths on veteran’s graves, we say their names.”
– Karen Worcester, Executive Director
Wreaths Across America

Private Krueger was killed in action November 17,1965. There are unknown soldiers interred in Section 4. Fortunately, part of the Wreaths Across America’s Mission is that known or unknown, these heroes of our collective past will never be forgotten. Thus, we were instructed to “speak aloud” the names we were witness to on each tombstone. Then as we placed the wreaths we were to add a simple, but heartfelt and poignant, “Thank you for your service.”

For my friend Kent Rice, he was there to honor his brother, Steven, a Vietnam veteran who served selflessly. I was with Kent – a Vietnam veteran himself – as he gently placed a wreath on one of the many tombstones. “This is where my dad is buried,” he said. “He was a WWII Navy veteran, a radio operator on the USS Swanee.” Kent moves to the other side of the tombstone; I see the name and I’m struck by the enormity of it. Three family members, all in service to our country. “My brother Steve was a US Army Vietnam era Infantryman, Paratrooper.” Kent says. Later he will tell me, “He survived a bad jump in which his main chute did not deploy properly and his reserve got tangled in the main. He had medical issues and unfortunately was a victim of suicide.” Kent like so many of this nation’s finest, is humble. I had never heard his story. I thank my friend, for his sharing and for his dignity and his service. Kent heads back to the other volunteers, to unassumingly place more wreaths, to speak the names aloud and honor more of his band of brothers and sisters.

Woods National is rapidly becoming a sea of green, as wide-eyed GirlScouts join us and earn their well-deserved “Wreath Badge.” I take their pictures, with promises to email them. Turning then, misty-eyed (it must be the cold), I say a quick prayer that the little troopers will remember this day and the deeper meaning. This enormous gift of freedom.

Surrounded now by beautiful wreaths, I wander to a quieter section to place my own wreaths and to name more names. I’m drawn toward a grave with a makeshift Christmas tree; childlike stockings hung with care. Just beyond the tree I meet US Air Force veteran Tim R. Cornell. In the midst of these fallen heroes, we somehow speak casually. We’re two new friends on a shared mission, just guys catching up. “Crazy weather, eh?” I realize then, that Tim an Air Force veteran, is standing next to his brother’s tombstone. He tells me the story of this hero. Staff Sergeant Todd Ryan Cornell.

The statistics are too cold: 3 Jan 1966-9 Nov 2004, native of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

Tim shares more. “His US Army team in Fallujah nicknamed my brother ‘Popeye’ due to his courage and physical strength. Todd died of injuries he sustained during combat operations…”  For his actions, Sergeant Cornell was posthumously awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Bronze Star, Medal of Valor, and the Purple Heart.

Todd died on a roof top in Iraq while protecting his fellow soldiers. SFC Gordon McGinnis would later tell family members that in a single day his life was saved by Cornell “no less than three times.” In an email following my serendipitous meeting with Tim Cornell, I would also learn that a room has been dedicated in Todd’s name at the US base in Baghdad. Todd’s fighting spirit and legacy as a professional soldier was further honored on 29 Sep 2007, when the SSG Todd R. Cornell NCO Academy was dedicated at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.  It is the largest and most advanced combat simulation training center for Army Reservists in the country.

After the last wreath was placed, my brother Andy and I drove past our boyhood home on 70th street in Wauwatosa. We made our way one block further to a local pub and toasted our dad with his favorite brandy manhattan. “To the sailor, the father of eight children, lifetime husband to our super-mom Peggy.” The bartenders thought it was “cool” so we swapped stories and pictures of our hero-parents and grandparents. Then Andy and I picked up two more wreaths. Visiting Holy Cross Cemetery we placed one at the gravesite of my mom and dad. I said it aloud, thanking David A. Dean, US Navy, for his remarkable teen-age courage. I thanked my mom too, for her USO service and for keeping my wonderful father sane, helping him heal, following the horrors of war he witnessed as a part of the LION (Land Invasion Operation Navy) in the South Pacific.

The second wreath came with me. We have a plaque just beneath the flagpole of our Port Washington home. I dusted off the foot of snow that covered the plaque. The brass etched words – – honoring my wife Jane’s dad and his service in WWII – – were visible once again. Jane came outside; I handed her the wreath and suggested she name him, aloud. So – – as the the flag which flew over the US Capitol on his birthday snapped in the wind – she did. Name him. Placing the wreath Jane said, “Cornelius James Hatchell.”

Never forgotten.

She named him, and standing in the beautiful midst of a classic Wisconsin snow storm, drenched in gratitude for this gift of freedom, I put my arm around the best thing Connie Hatchell ever gifted to me: my amazing wife. Daughter of Connie, another defender of liberty. Then, all of WWII and the enormity of the sacrifices of our veterans across so many generations, was once again what it must become for each of us. It was personal. In front of our house, we stood, two beneficiaries of this hard won freedom. Then Jane said: “Hey, thanks dad.”

And, the Wreaths Across America came home.

For our war-hero fathers and mothers. Our veteran siblings. Our veteran friends. Everyday, but this day especially, for Kent’s brother. And, for Sgt. Cornell, dying on a dessert rooftop in the midst of protecting his fellow soldiers. For all those unknown soldiers in Section 4 and at Arlington and in fields around the world. And, for those forever at sea, to each and all of you, thank you is never enough, but I thank you anyway.

REMEMBER
our fallen U.S. veterans.

HONOR
those who serve.

TEACH
your children the value of freedom
– From Wreaths Across America.com

And to everyone else, please: remember, honor, teach.

Joe Dean is a blogger here at PowerofHumans and Founder of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. You may follow him on Twitter @JoeDean261

WAA is committed to teaching younger generations about the value of their freedoms, and the importance of honoring those who sacrificed so much to protect those freedoms. The organization offers learning tools, interactive media projects, and opportunities for youth groups to participate in the events. They also work to create opportunities to connect “the Greatest Generation” with the “Generation of Hope”, passing on inspirational stories from World War II veterans to the leaders of the future.There are many ways you can help—learn more about how you can get involved.

The following lyrics and audio file are published here with permission. The poignant song was written and performed by Todd Ryan Cornell’s nephew, Charlie Rono, at his uncle’s funeral.

DEDICATED TO A FALLEN HERO

Staff Sergeant Todd Ryan Cornell
1-3-1963 — 11-9-2008
Died in the Battle of Fallujah, Iraq during urban assault maneuvers

What a beautiful day to think about life
I can’t think of a better day than today.

All the people they came to see his flag and to say goodbye, one last time
To know the people that he knew is to know his life – it’s beautiful

But these are just words in a song and they can’t really say how I feel when I say:
He’s finally home!
I can feel his smile
He’s right here now
He’s right here now
He’s finally home!
I can feel his smile
He’s right here now
He’s right here now

He gave his life so we could be as free as He
His sacrifice made me realize we are free

But these are just words in a song and they can’t really say how I feel when I say:
He’s finally home!
I can feel his smile
He’s right here now
He’s right here now
He’s finally home!
I can feel his smile
He’s right here now
He’s right here now

So fly away, you’re free now, you’re free!
So fly away, you’re free now, you’re free!

Written by Charlie Rono, Todd’s nephew