Community joins in wreath-laying ceremony

By VICTORIA ALDRICH | Kerrville Daily Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 15, 2015

Clues about Army Pvt. Douglas Skeen's life are sparse, but Girl Scout Troop 343 member Katie Brooks was inspired to leave a penny on his marker.

"I put it down because he was from Texas," Brooks said as she snapped a picture of his grave at Kerrville National Cemetery.

That's exactly the response Air Force and Army National Guard veteran Dennis Finuf hoped for when he helped to organize Kerrville's National Wreaths Across America Day event.

"We ask you to take a moment and visit the grave sites," Finuf said. "Write down the information on the person placed there, and when you return home, research the name on the Internet and find all you can about this person. They were real Americans with families. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, bothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. They were, and are, more than just statistics."

Kerrville and Alamo Area Civil Air Patrol Squadron members joined World War II Army Air Force aviator Sam Smith and other veterans Saturday to lay wreaths honoring all POW/MIAs, the five service branches and the merchant marines in Kerrville and at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Houston.

Brooks and other guests stayed afterward to help lay wreaths on each grave to make sure no one was forgotten.

Troop 343 often donates items to the Hill Country Veterans Center food pantry and visits Kerrville VA Medical Center patients as part of its service activities.

The girls also took part in a military tradition by leaving pennies on tombstones, a small act that has great significance to veterans and their families, according to volunteer chaplain Barbara Heckman-Sauer.

"When you put a penny on a tombstone, it lets the family know that you visited," Heckman-Sauer said. "If you leave a nickel, it means that you went through training with that person. If you leave a dime, you served with that person. If you leave a quarter, you were there when that person died."

Unlike local civilian graveyards, which hold generations of families, military cemeteries rarely reflect the surrounding community.

Some buried in Kerrville National Cemetery have local kin. Many are veterans from other regions who requested to be buried amongst other service personnel.

Guests heeded Finuf's advice and snapped photos of tombstones to learn more about the deceased.
What Brooks would learn later filled few gaps.

Skeen served as an Army bugler in World War I and died two months after his 48th birthday in August 1941, as World War II enveloped Europe and the Pacific.

Four months later, the U.S. joined the fray after Japanese pilots attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

More is known about Army Pvt. Bruce Elgin Zybtovsky, a Johnson City resident who died on April 29.

A volunteer firefighter and auto body repairman, Zybtovsky joined the Army in 1961 at age 18. After being discharged over a non-combat injury, he served with the Peace Corps in Africa, where he adopted three of his 10 children.

Zybtovsky's burial is the final new internment in the cemetery, according to Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery lead cemetery representative Johnny Barrientez.

"We keep on getting calls from people wanting to be buried in Kerrville, but there are no more graves available," Barrientez said. "We checked after he was buried, and there is no space left."

The cemetery opened in 1923, after two local residents, A.P. Brown and J.S. Brown, allowed local American Legion Women's Auxiliary members to bury former servicemen and World War I veterans who lacked next of kin in the Brown family's private cemetery.

In 1932, the family sold part of the cemetery to the American Legion.

Twenty years later, part of the land was donated to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which turned it over to the National Cemetery System in 1973.

It's managed now by Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.

In March, Barrientez will mark the end of another era as he steps down after 37 years of service.
"It's time," he said. "I'm going to continue to serve the community in other capacities."

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