Wreaths laid at veterans' graves in Beal Memorial Cemetery

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — In the crisp air of a sun-splashed Saturday morning, volunteers spread silently across the grounds of Beal Memorial Cemetery to lay wreaths at the graves of the more than 1,700 veterans buried there.

The morning marked the inaugural year for local participation in Wreaths Across America, an initiative to honor and remember the nation's military veterans.

Wreaths Across America traces its beginnings to 1992, when volunteers placed a truckload of wreaths donated by Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine, on graves at Arlington National Cemetery. From there, Wreaths Across America has become a nonprofit organization that also teaches school, scout, civic and other groups about American veterans.

Dr. David Goetsch, right, a former Marine, salutes a wreath during Saturday's Wreaths Across America ceremony at Beal Memorial Cemetery.

And although Saturday's observance was held in a cemetery, speakers at the event left no doubt that the purpose was to remember what the honored veterans did during their lives.

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Okaloosa County Commissioner Mel Ponder told the dozens of people gathered for the wreath-laying that its purpose was "to recognize a life, a memory, a legacy as one that never fades."

Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, commander of the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, sounded a similar note as he recalled the story of the Doolittle Raiders, members of the Army Air Forces who mounted a daring World War II bombing mission over Japan. The mission provided a morale boost just months after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor. Master Sgt. Ed Horton, one of the Doolittle Raiders, is buried at Beal Memorial Cemetery.

One of the lessons of Wreaths Across America, Cain said, is that recalling the lives of veterans and their "legacy of strength, honor and resilience" can "bring us hope in the toughest of times."

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Also speaking was David Goetsch, a Northwest Florida State College professor, Marine Corps veteran and member of the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame. While noting the Wreaths Across America mission to remember and honor veterans, Goetsch focused on the organization's work to educate people about veterans and the freedoms they have secured for Americans.

Members of the Fort Walton Beach Police Department honor guard fire a volley during Saturday's Wreaths Across America ceremony at Beal Memorial Cemetery.

"Unfortunately, it is easy to take those freedoms for granted,"  Goetsch said.

He added that the veterans' grave markers across the cemetery are inscribed with their dates of birth and death, but the purpose of Wreaths Across America is to honor "what these heroes did between those dates."

"I encourage you in the strongest possible terms to teach your children and your grandchildren about the things that make America great," Goetsch told the crowd.

Members of the Fort Walton Beach High School Junior ROTC  stand at attention while securing flags representing each branch of the armed forces during the Wreaths Across America ceremony Saturday at Beal Memorial Cemetery.

Before the laying of the wreaths, each of the U.S. military services, the country's prisoners of war and those missing in action were recognized with their own wreaths, unveiled by veterans and active-duty personnel.

The veterans also were honored with a rifle volley from the Fort Walton Beach Police Department honor guard. Members of the Air Force Junior ROTC at Fort Walton Beach High School also participated in the ceremony and in laying wreaths.

Among the people attending the inaugural observance was Marisela Dewitt, whose son, Louis, was one of the Junior ROTC cadets on hand.

But Dewitt said she also was there to honor the deceased veterans in her family, although they are interred elsewhere.

"It still feels like they are connected in some way," Dewitt said.

She also was at the Veterans Day observance at the cemetery to do her part to make sure "that they're not forgotten," she said.

Saturday's event was held at the base of the Veterans Tribute Tower, a bell tower that serves as a centerpiece of the cemetery.

The Veterans Tribute Tower Committee, members of Air Force Association Chapter 365 from Eglin Air Force Base and Chapter 398 from Hurlburt Field, along with other volunteers, laid the wreaths at the end of Saturday's formal remarks.

The committee's Tom Rice, who served as master of ceremonies, noted the significance of the inaugural Wreaths Across America observance, saying it was "made all the better by the community and the organizations involved."