JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The holiday season is right around the corner. For the families of fallen veterans, knowing their loved ones are remembered for their service and sacrifice can bring great comfort.
This year, volunteers with "Wreaths Across America," hope to lay holiday wreaths at 12,000 gravestones at Jacksonville National Cemetery, but they need your help to meet that goal.
As of Monday, the group was about 3,500 wreaths short. The goal is to have the wreaths ready by Dec. 14. That's when family members will lay wreaths on the gravesites. A special ceremony is taking place afterward.
The Jacksonville National Cemetery is arguably one of the most peaceful places in the city. It's the perfect space to honor and remember those who served. Al Richburg is the cemetery's director.
"I am retired Army. So, I feel at home here," Richburg said. "I love my veterans, I love the families. To me, this is one of those jobs that even if you didn't get paid for it, it's still worth serving."
Robert Willen agrees. Willen is retired a retired Navy commander, and will soon take over responsibilities with Wreaths Across America Jacksonville.
"This, to me, is the most sacred ground. It's beautiful," Willen said. "If you've not had the chance to come out to the cemetery and seen your national cemetery, you absolutely need to. It's absolutely gorgeous."
Roughly 16,000 veterans and fallen heroes are interred at the cemetery. The names at the gravesites tell a story of valor and sacrifice. Herbert Poindexter, Jr., was killed Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. His remains were recently identified and laid to rest.
Loved ones will soon have the chance to lay wreaths at thousands of these gravesites. Michael Smith is the location coordinator for Wreaths Across America Jacksonville. "Like I say every year, it brings joy to my heart," Smith said. While Smith didn't personally serve, he says doing this is personal.
"My father, he served 20 years in the Navy, did another 20 years in the civil service," Smith said. "He gave 40 years of his life to this nation. This is the way I'm paying it back."
Having served in the Navy and Air Force, meeting this goal is personal for Steven Spickelmier as well. He is the chairman for the cemetery's support committee.
"As the cemetery grows, also the wreath quantity will grow," Spickelmier said. "And to make plans and try to do this and to make sure everyone is covered when we do the wreaths."
After the story aired Monday morning on News4Jax, Smith updated us Tuesday, saying that in 24 hours, the group had received over 500 sponsorships for wreaths -- more than they'd ever had in one day online before.
But nearly 3,000 wreaths are still needed, and these men are calling on the public to continue their overwhelming response and help give these families more precious memories. The public is invited and encouraged to attend the ceremony.
To sponsor a wreath and see a schedule for the day's events, click here: http://www.wreathsacrossamericajacksonville.com/
If a family member cannot make it to the ceremony, they're welcome to come to the cemetery the Thursday and Friday before the event to pick up a miniature flag, and place it at the grave of their loved one. This way, others will know not to place a wreath there.
Buses and trailers will arrive around 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 14. Those with a disabled sticker in their vehicle's window will be taken into the cemetery using the concierge lanes for easier access. All others attending can drive to the Anheuser-Busch farm where the Jacksonville Transportation Authority will bring them down to the cemetery and pick them up afterward.