Warrior Tree honors veterans, raises awareness of suicide
By ERIC MARK | The Citizens' Voice | Published: November 19, 2018
EDWARDSVILLE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) -- Twenty-two pairs of boots sat under the Christmas tree in Veterans Memorial Park on Sunday.
That marked one pair of boots for each of the 22 U.S. military veterans who commits suicide each day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The fifth annual Edwardsville Warrior Tree Lighting combined bright holiday cheer with a somber message: The men and women who serve in the U.S. military are at risk not only at war, but also after they return home.
A large crowd of all ages filled the park and spilled onto the sidewalk to listen to patriotic music and speakers who honored veterans and their service.
Marine Corps veteran Zachary Hunter, of Edwardsville, spoke about the price of freedom.
"Our brave men and women (went) through hell to defend us," he said.
He urged his fellow veterans to support each other and spend time with loved ones during the holidays, which can be stressful.
"I have enough friends who have filled these boots," Hunter said. "Let's not fill any more."
The 24-year-old Hunter, who served from 2012-2016, including a tour in Afghanistan, later said he knows more military members who committed suicide than who died in combat.
Hunter's military service inspired his mother, Karen Declet, to organize the first Warrior Tree Lighting in 2014.
At first glance the warrior tree looks like any other Christmas tree. A closer inspection reveals that each decoration on the tree is dedicated to a man or woman on active duty, far from home for the holidays.
"It represents all the Christmas holidays our warriors missed," Declet said.
This year's event featured a short parade, an honor guard and an appearance from Sgt. Santa, who proved popular with the many children on hand. They sipped hot chocolate provided by volunteers as they waited their turn with Santa.
The tree lighting attracted active-duty military members, veterans, spouses of veterans and members of service organizations, along with residents of the West Side.
Michael Ayers, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the first Gulf War, said he attended the event to show his support for all veterans. Some of them did not receive a warm welcome when they came home, he said.
Declet said she was pleased with this year's turnout, which appeared to be the largest so far.
She plans to organize the Warrior Tree Lighting for many holiday seasons to come.
"Every year till they all come home for Christmas," she said.
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