Second annual event held Saturday at Pine Mountain Cemetery

ATASCADERO — Nearly 150 wreaths were set out on the headstones of veterans throughout Atascadero Pine Mountain Cemetery on Saturday. As each wreath was placed, the soldier’s name was said aloud.

This was the second year for the local Wreaths Across America event, and the number of wreaths doubled from the previous year. 

“Remember we are not here today to decorate graves,” said emcee and US Navy Ret. Charles Kania. “We are here to remember not their deaths, but their lives. Each wreath is a gift of appreciation from a grateful America.”

A Boy Scout from Troop 51 sets a wreath on Saturday, Dec. 14, during the Wreaths Across America ceremony at Atascadero Pine Mountain Cemetery.

Wreaths Across America is a relatively new event but has gained in popularity since a 2005 photo of the stones at Arlington, adorned with wreaths and covered in snow, circulated the internet.

WAA started in 1992, honors service members interred at cemeteries across the US and invites volunteers to place wreaths decorated with bows on their graves. The largest gathering was in Arlington National Cemetery, where 253,000 wreaths were set out on Saturday.

“We understand we have Veterans Day in the fall and Memorial Day in the spring, but our service members sacrifice their time and safety every single day of the year to preserve our freedoms,” Wreaths for America says on its website.

Brian Perez pauses for a moment after placing a wreath on a veteran’s headstone on Saturday at Atascadero Pine Mountain Cemetery.

“In many homes, there is an empty seat for one who is serving or one who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. There is no better time to express our appreciation than during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.” 

In Atascadero, the event began at noon under a partly cloudy sky. US Army Ret. Maj. Donald Luce organizes it each year.

On Saturday, Dec. 14, Wreaths Across America ceremonies were held in every state and more than 20 overseas locations.

“The freedoms we enjoy today have not come without a price,” Kania said. “Here before us and in cemeteries throughout this nation are men and women who gave their lives so that we can live in freedom without fear.”

Two ceremonial wreaths were set out. World War II veteran of the 107th Cavalry Charles “Cap” Capper laid the wreath for Fallen Brothers and Sisters. Nicole Marie Hider of Boy Scout Troop 51 set the wreath for Fallen Gold Star Families. A bell rang seven times after each wreath’s placing.

Each branch of the military was represented at the ceremony. A representative from each branch except the Air Force laid a wreath at the foot of the branch’s flag and then saluted — Army 1st Sgt. Ret. Jeffrey Mansfield, Marine Corps Sgt. Leia Larson, Navy Petty Officer David Evers Jr., Luce, Coast Guard Master Chief David Evers Sr., and Merchant Marines Midshipman Michael Reilly. Luce placed the wreath in front of the Air Force flag.

Boy Scouts Troop 51 provided the Color Guard. Troop 51 Scout Darin Gong sounded Taps on a bugle and Paul Dunn played “Amazing Grace” on a bagpipe.

After the ceremony, everyone in attendance helped set the 144 wreaths out across the cemetery. A small flag on a headstone signaled that wreath would be set by a family member.

Not every veteran in the Atascadero cemetery received a wreath. Money raised throughout the year by the local group is used to purchase as many wreaths as possible.

“Today, we show a united front of gratitude and respect across the United States of America as we remember the fallen, honor those who serve and teach our children the value of freedom,” Kania said in closing.

For more information or to make a donation to the local ceremony, call Kania at 202-367-2638 or Luce at 805-434-4008.

Correction: The branch of the military for Donald Luce was changed from U.S. Air Force to Army and also made clear that although he was not in the Air Force, he did place the wreath for the Air Force.