One of Aiken County’s biggest annual gatherings to honor veterans is a few weeks away from Veterans Day and several months away from Memorial Day.
Wreaths Across America activities, now locally involving thousands of participants and 10 cemeteries, are largely the creation of such veterans as Tony Venetz (Air Force) and Ralph Wainright (Army). Paul "Skip" Wilk, an Army veteran who died in 2017, was a driving force in the program's local establishment.
This year’s event is planned for Dec. 19 and the biggest local gathering is traditionally at Sunset Memorial Gardens, in Graniteville, at noon. Smaller assemblies are held later in the afternoon, around Aiken and North Augusta.
Remembering, honoring and teaching are key concepts during the ceremonies, as noted on the national organization’s website. Participants are encouraged to “remember our fallen U.S. veterans, honor those who served” and "teach your children the value of freedom.”
“It’s grown, and I think we’re up to about 2,000 cemeteries worldwide,” Venetz said. “I think we did 9,000 wreaths last year, at Normandy.”
“It’s gone pretty good, but it could be better,” said Ray Wright, with American Legion Post 212. Wright, an Air Force veteran, is part of the team that serves at Pinelawn Memorial Garden, in Aiken. He and several of his cohorts agreed that there is plenty of room for growth in the local observance.
“I would like the general population to know that this is some way we can … pay our respects to the fallen veterans that didn’t get killed in combat. They were veterans, and they passed, as life would have it,” he said.
Participants on the local scene represent a variety of organizations and also some schools, including the Naval Junior ROTC units around Aiken County. Ken Beck, commander of North Augusta High School’s NJROTC unit, noted that the Wreaths gathering “provides our cadets the opportunity to share in the dedication and remembrance” and is a solid opportunity for community service.
In the case of Aiken County, the assemblies include remembering veterans who were in action more than 150 years ago and some who served during the 21st century.
For Venetz, a member of American Legion Post 71, the event may be intensely personal, as his son, Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Ventez Jr., died in 2011 while serving in Afghanistan in the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, which plays a tremendous role in Wreaths Across America's outreach, as the place where it first grew to prominence.
Venetz recalled, "It was started by a gentleman up in Maine who had extra wreaths and brought them down to Arlington to remember and honor the veterans, and the mission, of course, is to remember, honor and teach, and it's grown."
The program arrived in Aiken County in 2015.
"It took three years to get a cemetery to give us permission to come in and do it, because we need permission," he said, recalling Southlawn Cemetery, between Aiken and New Ellenton, as the first host site.
Cody Anderson, owner and director of George Funeral Home and Cremation Center, is among the annual boosters. He commented, "We really get good feedback, because it's a nice tribute for our veterans, especially around the holidays – already a difficult time for folks that have lost a loved one."
Anderson and several of his professional peers around Aiken County support the outreach through financial support and also through such means as providing a tent to help protect against the elements.
"I think Wreaths Across America is an absolutely essential program to honor veterans," added Walker Posey, owner of Posey Funeral Directors. "Everyone's service matters, and it gives us an opportunity to really pause for a moment, thank our veterans for their service and then, in a difficult time such as the holidays, provide support for those families that are left behind, and also it's an inspirational event to ... help us feel a sense of community, and helps us realize there's a cause bigger than ourselves that we should all support."
Among other major boosters now are such organizations as Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5877, Women of Woodside and the Aiken Newcomers' Club.
“Last year, we surpassed over 2 million wreaths, nationwide, in honor of veterans," Wright recalled. "It takes a lot of volunteers.”