MONROE TWP. — For the past seven years, a dedicated group of individuals has been making sure that the military veterans interred at the Gloucester County Veterans Memorial Cemetery are not forgotten during the holiday season by ensuring that each gravesite is adorned with a Wreath of Remembrance.
As the number of gravesites continues to grow, so do the number of people who come out every year to honor and remember those whose service to this country has helped ensure the freedom enjoyed as a united nation today.
Nearly 1,000 volunteers of all ages braved the frigid winds Saturday morning to help place a fresh evergreen wreath adorned with a red ribbon on each of the 2,300 gravesites at the cemetery on Tuckahoe Road.
The morning began with a private ceremony and wreath laying at 9 a.m. for the relatives of those interred at the cemetery.
A public ceremony was held at 10 a.m., after which family, friends, fellow veterans, Scout groups and others, placed the wreaths and held a brief ceremony at each gravesite, concluding with the words, “May we never forget.”
“It’s very important that we never forget,” said Bernadette Blackstock, CEO and president of People for People Foundation, the non-profit group that founded the event. “Our mission is to teach the young kids the value of what our service men and women provided us. It’s a way to honor, respect them and, most importantly, to never forget.”
Blackstock, whose father and father-in-law were veterans, said the number of family members who come out for the private ceremony has grown to about 300 this year. “It’s our way of paying back,” she said. “We always thank the veterans, but it’s the families that suffer also.”
Carol Iannotti, of Mantua, understands that all too well. Her husband, U.S. Army veteran Carman Iannotti, who served in Vietnam, was interred in the cemetery last October. She brought their three grandchildren, siblings Sierra, 13, and Antonio, 7, and cousin, Carman, 5.
“We’re here to honor their pop-pop and the other vets who gave their lives for the freedom we have today,” Iannotti said. She said she was “overwhelmed” by the amount of people that showed up for the event.
U.S. Navy veteran Allan Connors, 69, has several friends interred at the cemetery.
“I’ve seen it grow every year,” Connors said of the wreath laying event. “It’s very rewarding to see this, based on my experience on my return from Vietnam.” Connors, who lives in Pitman, served in Vietnam from 1966-69. “It’s important to honor those that have served and have passed.”
The annual event is made possible thanks to the efforts of People for People, The Veterans Advisory Committee, the Rotary Club of Glassboro, and Lora and Rich Gess. They committed to adorning each grave with a wreath and, thanks to the generosity of the community, have been able to achieve that goal every year.
The group kicks off its wreath sales at the annual Veterans’ Picnic it hosts every year in September. The wreaths sell for $6 each. This year, $14,000 was collected to cover the cost of all the wreaths, which come from Home Depot, thanks to Gess, a senior director of merchandising for Home Depot.
“Our approach was to take the cost out of the event,” Gess said.
Jonathan Norman, 15, and fellow Scouts from Washington Township Boy Scout Troop 81, were on hand to help with the wreath laying.
For Jonathan, the event has a more personal meaning. His grandfather, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam, is interred at the cemetery. Jonathan and his family have been a part of the memorial event since the beginning, before he began volunteering with his fellow Scouts.
“We are helping to lay wreaths for the families who couldn’t be here today,” Jonathan said. “It’s good to know the importance of the veterans and how they served our country. And it’s nice, as a relative, to know that someone will take care of the wreaths if we can’t.”
The often somber public ceremony included presentations of memorial wreaths for each branch of the armed forces, as well as wreaths for those still listed as POW (prisoner of war) or MIA (missing in action), and one for families of Gold Star status.
“We are joined here to remember we are one nation and one flag,” said Gloucester County Deputy Freeholder Director Joe Chila. “We shall always remember.”
Blackstock was pleased at the number of children who attended the event.
“It’s really important that the young ones do it,” she said, adding that she hopes they “pick up the mantle and move it forward for us.”
THANK YOU to everyone for your support of Aktion Club’s recent coat drive service project. 75 coats were presented to Paul Blackstock from the ‘People for People Foundation’ earlier today. (see attached picture) FANTASTIC!!! These coats will be given out this weekend to needy families at an event in Glassboro and another in Camden.