ANCHORAGE — As a blanket of fog lifted Saturday at Fort Richardson National Cemetery, volunteers and the families of military service members fanned out to place holiday wreaths on the snow-capped graves of nearly 800 veterans.
The effort, part of a national program called Wreaths Across America, mirrored ceremonies around the country, with as many as 100,000 wreaths expected to be laid on grave sites at Arlington National Cemetery alone.
In Alaska, Christopher Brevard and his wife, Michele, showed up early. The couple skipped the speeches. They missed the bugler who played taps. The Brevards picked up a balsam fir wreath, punctuated with a red bow, and headed to their son’s memorial marker before the official ceremony was even set to begin.
Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Robert Brevard died in southern Iraq in 2007 while sweeping through a house rigged with explosives, his father said. The Dimond High School graduate left behind a wife and two young daughters.
“I think what I’m starting to miss the most is what he would have been, because I already know what he accomplished in 31 years,” the elder Brevard said. “That’s what bothers me the most, is never seeing him go further in his career, or further in his life.”
“Your future rests with your children, and when you don’t get to see that, it’s heart-wrenching,” he said.
A few feet away from their son’s marker, the Brevards saw a marker for a 21-year-old soldier killed in Afghanistan. They walked over and brushed the snow from a bouquet of flowers that someone had placed on the grave.
“I noticed there’s quite a few more since when our son passed,” Brevard said. “Sometimes it makes me sad ... because I think people forget that these wars are even going on.”
The effort now known as Wreaths Across America began in 1992 when a Maine wreath company donated 5,000 of the memorial wreaths to the Arlington cemetery in Washington, D.C. The program now delivers wreaths to about 200,000 veterans’ graves in all 50 states and 24 foreign locations.
During its first year at Fort Richardson, in 2007, 42 wreaths were placed at graves. This year, 798 wreaths were laid out, said Marc Balnius with the Alaska Knights of Columbus.
“The program has grown in leaps and bounds,” Balnius said. “One day, we will cover this entire cemetery.”
Two full sections, about a fifth of the roughly 4,100 plots at the cemetery, received wreaths Saturday, with help from members of the Civil Air Patrol, Alaska Military Youth Academy, Boy Scout Troop 229 and the Alaska chapter of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association among the volunteers.
One couple, Rick and Kathleen Travis, came to visit the graves of their parents. Their fathers were veterans, buried alongside their wives. The graves are near the cemetery’s lone Medal of Honor recipient, James L. Bondsteel.
“We come out here to see Mom and Dad, and we always see James,” Rick Travis said. “We figure somebody’s got to honor him.”
According to an official account, Bondsteel was a platoon sergeant fighting in Vietnam on May 24, 1969, when his company was directed to assist another unit under fire from a heavily fortified North Vietnamese encampment. Bondsteel led attacks that destroyed 10 enemy bunkers, rallied a faltering battalion, tended to their wounded, saved an officer’s life and carried much-needed ammunition through heavy fire.
Bondsteel lived in Willow after retiring from the Army and died in 1987 when a trailer carrying logs came unhooked and smashed into the front of his pickup on the Glenn Highway.
Rick and Kathleen Travis said it was just a coincidence that all four of their parents were buried in the cemetery, not far from Bondsteel. The couple was reminiscing about being with their families for the holidays when they decided to attend the wreath-laying ceremony.
“We were talking about Christmas and it seemed like we needed to be here,” Rick Travis said.