KILLEEN, Texas - Vibrant splashes of seasonal green and red brightened a wintry morning at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery Saturday, as more than 5,000 Christmas wreaths were placed on row after row of snowy white grave markers.
More than 1,000 volunteers took time out from the hustle and bustle of the Thanksgiving weekend to join family members of the fallen and honor each and every service member interred in those hallowed grounds.
The event is organized by the Friends of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery and is now in its eighth year.
196 motorcycles, led by the local chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders, escorted the tractor-trailer carrying the wreaths to the cemetery. The roar of their engines filled the air under an ivory white sky as hundreds of volunteers watched them file two-by-two through the gates and along the narrow road that loops through the grounds, their numbers passing by until they nearly circled the entire cemetery.
Once the truck was staged, and the motorcycles parked, the bikers joined the large crowd of volunteers for a short ceremony before the wreaths were placed.
“I’m more than honored to be with you all today, and I don’t say that lightly,” said the featured speaker, retired Lt. Gen. David Richard Palmer, former Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy and local resident. “My very first heroes were veterans, long before I was one. As a boy during World War II, I followed the men and women who were waging that war and they became my heroes. At that time there were lots of World War I veterans around, and I knew a lot of them, and there were even a few Civil War veterans. Along with those revered veterans of America, my current heroes are those men and women who have been fighting for the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
It was a those heroes, past and - perhaps especially – present, who were on the minds of the volunteers as they set about the task of decorating thousands of gravesites holding the remains of men and women who died as veterans, many of them having given the ultimate sacrifice.
Volunteer Todd Allison, who was unloading bunches of wreaths out the back of the semitrailer, expressed a powerful sense of community as hundreds of people lined up to take the bundles from him.
“My brother is in the Army so it’s good to be part of this,” he said. “Look at all these people who came out today – it’s amazing and it says a lot about [Killeen]. This town is very supportive of the military, as it should be.”
The strong roots of patriotism that run through the generations of this military town were evident by the sheer number of people who showed up to help. So many, in fact, that organizers had to limit the number of wreaths each person could place so that every volunteer could have a chance to honor a fallen warrior.
Small children and their families, retired veterans, bikers, senior citizens and teenagers in letter jackets - all ventured into the serene sea of gravestones together, kneeling to place their wreaths. In less than an hour, every marker had been visited, with a lustrous green and red garland carefully placed against it.
Ken Ray, owner of Towne Services, a local shipment and storage company that furnishes the tractor-trailer that transports the wreaths and stores them year-round, said he’s been proud to support the event, which only grows bigger each holiday season.
“In another year we’ll probably have to add another truck,” he said.