In mere minutes, the Fort Smith National Cemetery transformed into an enchanting holiday scene, as hundreds of volunteers and families gathered for the fifth annual Christmas Honors wreath decoration on Saturday (Dec. 14).
The more than 14,500 graves were adorned with beautiful holiday wreaths in honor and memory of those who have served their country.
Spearheaded by the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce and organizer Philip Merry, Christmas Honors began in 2009 with a goal of purchasing enough wreaths to decorate every headstone in the Fort Smith National Cemetery. The project was modeled after the national "Wreaths Across America" program, which decorates the graves at Arlington National Cemetery and encourages other groups across the country to do the same locally during the holidays.
Christmas Honors activities began on Friday (Dec. 13), as more than 500 volunteers assembled at the Fort Smith Convention Center to unpack the wreaths and prepare them for this year's placement. Participants included students from throughout the region, members of local civic clubs, community leaders, and individual supporters. Volunteers were encouraged to bring non-perishable food items, to be donated to Camp Hope for Heroes, which assists homeless and transitioning veterans.
Saturday's ceremony began with a Service Branch Salute at 9:30 a.m. with attendance from members and former members of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy were all in attendance. Seven tripods, located at the cemetery's entrance, were formally decorated with wreaths in honor of each of the military branches and all Prisoners of War, and men and women who are "Missing in Action."
Following the service branch salute, family members of those buried in the cemetery were invited to decorate their loved ones' graves and spend a few private moments on the cemetery grounds. Hundreds of volunteers then gathered for the public wreath distribution, during which the remaining graves were adorned with Christmas wreaths.
The formal ceremony began at 11 a.m., with the presentation of colors. It was held in conjunction with the national "Wreaths Across America" ceremony, in which the President lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Merry, along with Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders and local Wreaths Across America Coordinator Marvin Mendenhall, spoke about the program and the thousands that help make it possible. Mendhenhall then welcomed special guest Major General William Wofford who serves as the Arkansas National Guard Adjutant General. Wofford spoke to the importance of Christmas Honors, noting that it gives citizens the opportunity to "Remember, Honor, and Teach."
"Let us remember those who have fallen, honor those who have served and are currently serving, and teach our children the value of our freedom," said Wofford.
Wofford also praised Fort Smith for its commitment to the Christmas Honors program.
"I have attended many of these ceremonies across the state, but I must say, that this here is the most significant and most beautiful one that I have seen," said Wofford. "Your presence here today sends a strong message across the state about what a unique community Fort Smith is."
Merry echoed Wofford's sentiments, noting that it is the community that makes Christmas Honors such a success.
"Last year, we documented 1,763 volunteers between Friday and Saturday," said Merry. "That is part of what makes this project so beautiful, it truly is a grassroots effort, with people from all different walks of life involved."
With Christmas Honors now its fifth year, organizers have stressed that the wreaths will need to be replaced for 2014.
"When we purchased the wreaths from Walmart in 2009, we hoped to get five years out of them," said Merry. "The wire in them is now starting to rust and some are trying to fall apart. They are on their last leg and we will need to purchase new ones for this next year."
Merry anticipates that the project will need 15,000 new wreaths purchased, at a cost of approximately $6 each, for a total of $90,000.
Those wanting to contribute to the project are encouraged to mail donations to Christmas Honors c/o Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce, 612 Garrison Ave., Fort Smith, Ark. 72901. For more information, call 783-3111.
Christmas Honors activities will continue into the coming week. A candlelight vigil will take place on Monday (Dec. 16) beginning at 5:30 p.m. Special guests will include members of the Fort Smith Fire and Police Departments. The wreaths will remain on display through Jan. 4.