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Photos and article by Mary Alice Murphy

The Wreaths Across America ceremony at Fort Bayard National Cemetery began at 10 a.m. on a sunny, if a bit chilly, day. The welcome was given by Marine Charlie LeBlanc, who also served as the master of ceremonies.

The colors were posted by a combined group of veterans from the Gaffney-Oglesby Marine Corps League Detachment 1328 and the Allingham-Golding American Legion Post 18.

World War II veteran Leonard Pritikin led the Pledge of Allegiance and the Hi Lo Silvers, led by Valdeen Wooton, sang The Star-Spangled Banner.

LeBlanc said the event began at Fort Bayard in 2009, led by Mary Cowan, who continues to lead the effort, along with many volunteers. Seven wreaths were placed that year. In 2010, 35 wreaths lay against white gravestones. The number more than doubled to 72 in 2011. In 2012, the number had grown to 549; in 2013, to 1,042; in 2015 to 2,079; in 2016 to 3,024 and this year, 2017 to 3,818.

Cowan thanked and named her many volunteers, but said her biggest supporter and helper has been her husband, Tip.

"Because of the hard work of everyone involved, we, this year had 600 sponsors who purchased 3,818 wreaths," Cowan said

"God bless you for making Fort Bayard National Cemetery so beautiful," LeBlanc said. He then called for a minute of silence for the prisoners of war and those missing in action, as well as those who have fallen.

Joseph Trujillo, National Cemetery Administration program support assistant in charge of Fort Bayard National Cemetery gave special thanks to Tatton Allsup, a senior at Cliff High School, who raised $750 and then was given another generous donation by Western Bank to go toward wreaths. "Wreaths Across America has a certificate of appreciation for the 322 wreaths that his efforts brought to the cemetery. We also have a Department of Veterans Affairs Certificate of appreciation for Mrs. Cowan, who is 90 percent of the reason why this is such a success. I'm lucky to have her in charge of this program."

He introduced Moses Algueda who drove the truck from Maine that brought the wreaths the previous day.

Dean Bearup, a member of the Gaffney-Oglesby Marine Corps League Detachment 1328 served as the featured speaker.

"I had 28 years of service in the Marine Corps," Bearup said. "I'm going to speak from my heart today. I want to make a comment right now that might apply to all the football players who don’t stand for the National Anthem. We just heard the Hi Lo Silvers sing the fourth verse that is not often sung or heard. It begins: 'Oh, thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand…' Maybe we should start singing that verse and remind them that they are free men because of those who serve in the armed forces."

He said he was honored to be asked to speak and humbled to give the featured speech.

Bearup said "in a recent meeting with Dr. Cowan, I was struck by the list of things that had to be done. No. 5 was Shine, even if it's raining."

"When you drove into the cemetery, you saw the cold hard backs of the gravestones," Bearup said. "How beautiful those wreaths are on the front sides."

He suggested if the alt-right and alt-left were to be there, that the alt-right should sit on the left and the alt-left on the right. "But they are too busy talking to listen to one another. When I would get candidates for the Marine Corps, I would ask them a few questions. The first was: 'How many ears do you have?' Most said: 'Two.'
The next question was: 'And how many mouths?' They would answer: 'One.' And I would say: 'Then you should be listening twice as much as you talk.'"

"If you went out here and resurrected 10 of those buried here and took a vial of blood from each," Bearup continued. "Then you would ask ten of those who hate America to pick out each by race or ethnicity. You would find no difference. Blood is always red."

He explained the difference between right and privilege. It is a privilege to be able to get a driver's license, but every citizen has the right to vote.

Bearup also noted that the count of programs ordered was 150. "You were way short. I suggest next year you double that number."

"We have two national holidays that we hold ceremonies out here at Fort Bayard—Memorial Day and Veterans' Day," Bearup said. "But those were created by politicians. This one, Wreaths Across America, is more meaningful because it was begun by the people of this country. There's a story behind Wreaths Across America. It began in 1992, as a result of something that happened long before that when Morrill Worcester was a 12-year-old paperboy for the Bangor Daily News. He won a trip to Washington, D.C. A visit to Arlington National Cemetery made an especially indelible impression on him.

"Worcester, by 1992, the owner of Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, had a surplus of wreaths nearing the end of the holiday season," Bearup continued.

With the help of Maine Sen. Olympia Snow, he received permission to lay the extra wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery in one of the older sections that had been receiving fewer visitors with each passing year. A trucking company offered to transport the wreaths from Maine to Virginia. Volunteers from the American Legion and VFW posts decorated each wreath with traditional red, hand-tied bows.

The company continued to provide wreaths to Arlington. In 2005, it snowed and a photo of the gravestones with the wreaths went around the internet. Worcester, after receiving many requests for wreaths, was unable to donate thousands of wreaths to each state, so he, in 2006, sent seven wreaths to every state, one for each branch of military and one for POW/MIAs. In 2007, the non-profit organization, Wreaths Across America, was founded. In 2008, more than 300 locations held wreath-laying ceremonies in every state, Puerto Rico and 24 overseas cemeteries. More than 100,000 wreaths were placed on veterans' graves, with more than 60,000 volunteers participating. By 2014, more than 700,000 wreaths were laid at 1,000 locations.

The 226,525 gravestones at Arlington each received a wreath that year.

"Fort Bayard National Cemetery will place more wreaths than the Santa Fe National Cemetery," Bearup noted.

He said that less than 1 percent of the American population serves in the military. "One out of every hundred step forward and say: 'Take me.' I honor them today. I also honor all those who volunteer each year for this ceremony. They include the Boy Scouts, the Explorer Post, the Border Patrol, the Silver High School National Honor Society, and so many more individual volunteers."

"I am an American. Yes, I am," Bearup said. "Why is it so hard to be proud to be an American? It's hard to get a handle on why people aren’t proud to be an American."

He said Silver City has about 10,500 people. "You're the grease that makes this machine work. Why is it so hard to say: 'I am an American?' These headstones represent great Americans. Don't be embarrassed to say you are an American."

"They say a person dies twice," Bearup said. "The first time when he takes his last breath. And the second time when his name is last spoken. Go out into the cemetery. When you find someone you know, look to the left and to the right and speak those names on either side."

He said he hopes to see everyone back at Fort Bayard in May, November and December. "Let us not forget we are Americans. God speed and Merry Christmas!"

LeBlanc thanked Bearup for the "light you shed. We are one nation, under God with one flag. We are a free people of many cultures. Freedom has not been without price. These have given their lives so we can raise our children as we wish, we can go to whatever church we want to, we can travel across the country without having to ask permission. We have the right to vote for whoever we want to and we have the right to succeed."

He said the country was based on freedom, justice and equality. "We are a beacon of light to the world. We don't need to apologize to anyone. We will not forget that America has fought to protect the innocent and the oppressed. Many of us here have served. We have cemeteries around the world. The only thing we take from other countries is a little bit of land to bury our dead."

Americans serve all over the world. "Please say to any veteran: 'Thank you for your service and God bless you.' We owe them a debt of freedom. As President Reagan said, freedom is never more than one generation away from disappearing. We must hand down the pride of service to each generation or one day we will be telling our grandchildren what this country used to be."

He said the previous afternoon, when Moses drove in with the wreaths, "people came out like ants and covered the cemetery, putting wreaths on headstones. We asked each person to say the name out loud where they placed the wreath and to thank them for their service. These are not decorations. We are here to honor not their deaths, but their lives."

LeBlanc asked each one present to write down a name from a headstone and research them. "Many of them are just plain Americans. They are more than just a statistic. They were people who served our country."

He thanked those who participated in the ceremony by name. "We apologize for anyone we left out." LeBlanc said the museum was open for tours until 1 p.m. and hot chocolate would be served at the theater.

"We are blessed to have Mary Cowan heading up this effort," LeBlanc said. "We have flowers for her."

Cowan came forward and said: "Mary gets so much credit, but she is so fortunate to have a dedicated team. Thank you, Tip."

She noted that Clovis was to get their wreaths at 7 a.m., but Clovis had to cancel, because their wreaths went to Santa Fe.

Cowan gave special thanks to Freeport-MoMoRan. "When we knew the truck was going to be late, and it might be dark, I called Kevin Cook. Freeport situated four large lights in the cemetery, as it got colder and the sun set. My whole role in this ceremony was when we had our first meeting for 2009. I learned we had no music planned, and so I got the Hi Lo Silvers and Valdeen Wooton involved, and they have participated every year."

LeBlanc concluded by giving a "huge thank you to everyone for attending. God bless the greatest country in the world—the United States of America."

Live from Silver City

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