GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Gettysburg resident Stan Clark seemed a little taken aback as he surveyed the crowd from the stage at Soldiers' National Cemetery on Friday, many outfitted in plastic slickers and boots against the steady rain as they waited for the wreath project's commemoration ceremony to begin.
"This is the biggest turnout we've ever had."
Clark and John and Susan McColley, parents of late Marine Sgt. Eric McColley, formed the wreath project as a way to honor those who gave their lives in service. The McColley's son, Eric, a Gettysburg native, was killed in February 2006 off the coast of Djibouti. The McColleys laid a wreath at their son's grave in Quantico National Cemetery that first year, and together with Clark, a veteran who served six years in the Corps, the tribute has continued, placing thousands of wreaths at both Quantico National Cemetery and Gettysburg's Soldiers' National Cemetery every first Friday in December. The 1,620 wreaths for the Gettysburg cemetery were purchased from Giant Foods and assembled by volunteers, Clark said.
The early afternoon ceremony included speeches from U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-York County, Park Superintendent Bob Kirby, and the Rev. Louis Nyiri, pastor at Gettysburg Presbyterian Church.
"Eric was a man described as someone who brought light into this world, " Nyiri said.
Students from Biglerville Elementary, Gettysburg's Lincoln Elementary and Hanover Young Marines were also among those who came to pay tribute and set the wreaths on the gravesites.
Clark gave them some last minute practical details about distributing the wreaths, then paused before delivering the most important instruction of all.
"And when you do that, read the name on the headstone. Every one here has served our country in one branch of the armed services or the other."