The crowd overflowing from the chapel Saturday filed out into the falling snow over the Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery in Evansville.
They wiped headstones to read the names and give thanks before placing wreaths at the foot of each one.
Hundreds of volunteers arrived for the local Wreaths Across America event as part of a nationwide effort to place a wreath at every grave of a U.S. Veteran for Christmas.
For the first time, a wreath rests on the graves of the nearly 3,000 veterans buried in Wyoming’s sole cemetery designated for veterans. The Natrona County Republican Women raised the funds with help from several other organizations and community support to meet that goal, co-chairwoman for the project Kathy Sanford Thomas said.
Speakers at a ceremony before the wreath-laying said they’d never seen a show of community support the size of Saturday’s crowd that left standing room only in the the Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery chapel.
“I am just overjoyed and overwhelmed and ecstatic at this crowd,” Natrona County Republican Women Interim President Bonnie Foster said.
The purpose of Wreaths Across America is to remember the fallen, honor those who have served and their families and to “teach our young as well as our communities, the value and price of freedom,” Foster said during a prayer.
Speakers included U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso and Pat Thomas, son of late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas. The emcee gave volunteers protocol from the non-profit Wreaths Across America to say aloud the veteran’s name before placing the wreath.
“They say a person dies twice,” Thomas said, “Once when they pass away and again when their name isn’t spoken again.”
U.S. Navy veteran Rob Todd joined his sister, U.S. Army veteran Nina Stairs, in saluting veterans as they placed wreaths Saturday. Todd, who was twice deployed to Iraq, came to honor the 16 close friends he lost in Afghanistan and Iraq and all veterans, he said.
“I think it’s just amazing that people took the time out of their day,” Todd said. “It’s not warm, it’s not comfortable, they probably could be doing better things — but they took the time to do this. It’s a huge turnout. It just shows you the loyalty and the pride in this country and this state and the sacrifice for what everybody did for this place.”
Stairs joins friends and family every Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day at the cemetery.
“I’ve never seen a turnout as massive as this,” Stairs said. “It’s been so humbling and just such an honor.”
Troy Campbell placed a wreath for his aunt’s father, Leroy York, who served in the U.S. Army World War II. His wife, Melissa Campbell, and their sons, ages 7 and 3, each placed another wreath.
They brought the boys “to show them that we need to honor all veterans,” Troy said.
York’s daughter, Lynne Anthony, expressed gratitude over the phone from Oklahoma for her family members and the others who placed wreaths in the cemetery. She had visited her father before his death a few weeks ago, but couldn’t travel for the ceremony, she said.
“I just think it’s wonderful that they’re doing that,” Anthony said.
Volunteers last year laid about 200 wreaths through the national nonprofit Wreaths Across America, Sanford Thomas said after Saturday’s event. The Natrona County Republican Women approached the Patriot Guard Riders to help raise funds for wreaths at every grave this year. Also involved in the project were the Civil Air Patrol, Kelly Walsh High School’s Deca Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution in Casper and the VFW in Laramie, Sanford Thomas added.
Wreaths were placed at 1.4 million graves on Saturday through the U.S. and overseas, including throughout Wyoming, Sanford Thomas said. Local volunteers also laid wreaths at the other two cemeteries in Casper. She hopes in the future to locate and place wreaths for all local veterans, wherever they’re buried, she added.
Some estimated 700 to 900 volunteers took part Saturday at Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery, Sanford Thomas said.
Wallace and Wendy Trembath were among the last of that crowd to leave. They stood at the grave of his grandfather, Robert Lamb, who served in the U.S. Army in World War II.
“It almost brings me to tears, it’s so beautiful,” Wendy said as she gazed at the lines of wreaths.
The timing of Christmas adds to the poignancy for them, Wallace said.
“From a spiritual perspective, it reminds us that there was another person who came for us and sacrificed his life too,” Wallace said. “The combination of the two just makes it meaningful.”