By Haley Walker, Staff Writer—
Every December 15, wreaths are placed on the tombstones of veterans and members of their families in the Chattanooga National Cemetery for the duration of the holiday season. They remain until January 26, when volunteers undertake “The Retirement of the Wreaths,” an event where community members volunteer their time to collect the wreaths for recycling.
Both the placing and retirement of wreaths occurs under the direction of Wreaths Across Chattanooga, which started this tradition in 2006 and has sustained it over the years.
Mickey McCamish, one of the coordinators of Wreaths Across Chattanooga, explains that “The purpose of the wreaths is to honor and remember the veterans who have died as well as their families.”
Justin Shankles, who has been working with Wreaths Across Chattanooga for two years now, adds that “[the wreaths] [help] us to remember the fallen ones [who] have passed and the sacrifices they made for us and our country…Normally I have my daughter with me, so [the event] helps me teach her about what they’ve done over the years.”
Yonna Jones, a former UTC student who graduated in 1985 from the nursing program, started volunteering two years ago to help remove the wreaths. “It is one of my many ways to help the military and veterans,” Jones said. Her father and some of her uncles were buried in the cemetery and her son is currently serving in the military.
The organization’s goal for 2019 (as well as their ultimate goal overall) is to accumulate enough donations to place a wreath on each of the 46,000 graves in the Chattanooga National Cemetery.
To do this, Wreaths Across Chattanooga relies on donations from the Chattanooga community, whether that be through giving physical wreaths to place or giving money to go towards the purchase of wreaths. Last December, the organization provided wreaths for about 10,000 graves and received approximately $100,000 in donations. Despite the community support, they have not yet been able to provide a wreath for every grave.
Shankles explained that the time it takes for the retirement process depends on the number of wreaths initially laid and the number of people who volunteer to help collect them.
This year, the collection and retirement process took place on Saturday, January 26 at 8:30 am and ended a bit earlier than predicted. About 700 people showed up to help collect the wreaths.