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Local inspired by Wreaths Across America starts new tradition

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The mantra of the Wreaths Across America organization is simple, yet powerful. Placing wreaths on the graves of fallen servicemen and women is a small way of paying tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country. It is also a cause Somerset resident Kathleen Gunning is very passionate about.

The Fall River, Massachusetts daycare owner had become aware of the event a few years prior but didn’t become fully invested until this past December when her son graduated as an infantry officer in the .

His graduation day happened to fall on the day before Wreath Day, and Gunning and her son were able to take part in the wreath laying ceremony in the Arlington National Cemetery. There were 44,000 volunteers that placed over 200,000 wreaths on graves. “Say Their Name” was last year’s theme.

“A person dies twice,” said Gunning, “when they have their last breath and when their name is spoken for the last time.” Another part of the ceremony is laying a wreath down on the Tomb of the Unknowns at exactly noon.

“It was just incredible,” said Gunning, who became emotional thinking of the day. Her son was equally as moved.

“He tweeted about it,” Gunning said.

At the end of the 1992 holiday season, the Worcester Wreath Co. was left with an abundance of unsold wreaths. The Maine-based company decided to send the wreaths to the Arlington National Cemetery and have them placed on an older section of graves that had a declining amount of visitors. This continued to be a low-key tradition until it gained national attention in 2005 when the trademark photo of the Balsam wreaths draped over the snowy gravestones in the cemetery circulated online. Many states wanted to honor the tradition and in 2007 Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit organization, was formed.

Now Gunning has made it her mission to bring the ceremony to Somerset.

A huge inspiration was the recent passing of a friend, a 98-year-old veteran.

“He was part of the greatest generation ever, and once that generation is gone, so are the stories,” Gunning said. There are about 3,000 soldiers buried in Somerset, and Gunning said she hopes to preserve their memories.

She has spent the last couple of months actively getting information about how to bring the event to the town. Once the town is registered, seven wreaths for each branch of the service and the POW/MIAs will be sent by Wreaths Across America. Wreaths for the rest of the graves are $15 each to sponsor, and Gunning is looking into organizing events to raise sufficient funds.

Finding all the gravestones will perhaps be the biggest challenge.

“There is no map available with all the graves marked off, so we have to go to the cemetery and read each stone,” Gunning said.

A lot of the motivation comes from having a family member in the service.

“Before my son, I didn’t have anyone in the service,” said Gunning. “Years ago, almost everyone had a family member in the military.

Today, the percentage of families with a loved one in the service is incredibly low. Sacrifices are forever, and the families of those who served sacrificed a lot, as well.” It is also important, Gunning added, for today’s youth to know the importance of these events.

“We want the kids to know why they have Veterans Day off, what Memorial Day is,” Gunning said. The goal of Wreaths Across America is to remember the fallen, honor those serving and teach youth about the importance of freedom.

This year’s ceremony will take place on Dec. 16. The significance of Wreath Day being in December is because servicemen and women are not with their families during the holidays.

Gunning is looking to have volunteers help raise funds, bring awareness and identify soldiers’ graves.

There will be an informational meeting at Somerset Public Library on March 7 at 6 p.m.

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