Holiday wreaths at Fort Bliss cemetery remember thousands of veterans

By DAVID BURGE | El Paso Times, Texas | Published: November 16, 2012

EL PASO, Texas — A handful of El Paso organizations are banding together again this year to make sure that the veterans buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery aren't forgotten this holiday season.

Through the Wreaths Across America campaign, Fort Bliss National Cemetery has gotten decked out in live holiday wreaths every year since 2006, when the program went national.

Last year, about 5,200 wreaths were put on grave sites at Fort Bliss, said Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. Debbie Torres, the local organizer for Wreaths Across America.

The program is financed entirely with donations. The goal this year is to place at least 6,000 wreaths at Fort Bliss.

So far, donations will pay for about 4,000 wreaths, so more help is needed, Torres said. The donation campaign ends at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

"It lets people know their loved ones aren't forgotten," Torres said.

The cemetery, 5200 Fred Wilson, contains more than 50,000 graves for veterans and family members, dating as far back as 1862. It was officially designated a national cemetery in 1939.

The El Paso Composite Squadron-Civil Air Patrol has spearheaded the local effort for Wreaths Across America since 2006. It has joined with its usual partners again this year — the West Point Society, the El Paso Aviation Association, the El Paso Chapter Ninety-Nines and the El Paso Exchange Club.

Participating groups get part of the proceeds based on the donations they collect.

A wreath costs $15, but donations of all amounts are accepted. Donors can also designate that a wreath go on a particular grave site, an option that was first developed at Fort Bliss, Torres said.

"We still need help; we still need donations," Torres said.

Wreaths will arrive on Dec. 15 and will stay up until mid-January, Torres said. A ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. that day at the national cemetery. Every participating location has its ceremony coincide with the main one that's being conducted at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Each ceremony starts with a moment of silence.

"Even if people can't make it, they can still have a moment of silence at 10," Torres said.

The program was started by Maine businessman Morrill Worcester in 1992. It was initially only done at Arlington and was originally known as the Arlington Wreath Project. It was expanded nationally and was renamed Wreaths Across America six years ago.

Now, about 900 locations participate, Torres said.

Each wreath has a red bow. Volunteers place the wreaths on grave sites and then remove them a little over a month later. The ceremony on Dec. 15 will feature seven specially decorated wreaths for each branch of service and for POWs/MIAs.

"It's a big honor to participate in this," Torres said. "It has a big emotional attachment for all of us, because most of us are prior military."

Marilyn "Didi" Shaffer, chapter chairwoman of the El Paso Chapter Ninety-Nines, a group of women aviators, said the program is important because it helps to "honor our service members who passed away."

It's also a way for her organization to raise money. Proceeds it gets from participating are used for scholarships for women aviators for pilot certificates and ratings.

"It's wonderful," Shaffer said. "It's a way to give back to the community."


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