Fresh wreaths, fresh sacrifice

Published 8:06 pm Saturday, December 12, 2015

Eunice McDonald Washington places wreaths on her parents' headstone at Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery during the wreath-laying ceremony on Saturday.

Eunice McDonald Washington places wreaths on her parents’ headstone at Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery during the wreath-laying ceremony on Saturday.

As she placed fresh evergreen wreaths on her mother and father’s grave Saturday morning, Eunice McDonald Washington shed a few tears.

“I still miss them,” Washington said. The Hampton woman and her husband, retired U.S. Air Force chaplain Reuben Washington, were among an estimated 6,000 people who descended upon the Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery Saturday for National Wreaths Across America Day.

The Horton Wreath Society — a nonprofit committed to adorning every grave in the state-run veterans’ cemetery annually — raised money for more than 7,000 wreaths this year, said Betty Hand, the organization’s president. Volunteer turnout was roughly double the 3,000 people expected, prompting traffic snarls on the rural roads leading to the cemetery.

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The opportunity to formally place wreaths on her parents’ headstone is comforting, Washington said. Her father, Ramion McDonald Sr., was buried at the cemetery in 2014. The U.S. Air Force veteran died at age 80; her mother — whose shares the plot with her husband — died unexpectedly in 2006.

“For me, it’s also a type of closure,” Washington added. “I think it’s particularly nice they can be in the plot together. That’s exactly what they wanted.”

Across the cemetery, Kali Rothman, 12, and her brother, Andrew Rothman, bent down and looked at the headstone of Albert G. Horton Jr., who petitioned to get the veterans cemetery built in Suffolk.

Every December, they come with their parents, Ryan and April Rothman, and now, their 4-month-old sister, Norah, from Leesburg to the cemetery. The couple’s twins, Lexi and Paige, who died at 24 weeks, are buried there.

“This is a beautiful opportunity to say hello to our babies and thank you to those who died for our country,” said April Rothman, looking at rows of perfectly aligned, wreathed headstones. “We appreciate the extra effort that goes into the wreaths and we will come every year, as long as we are in the area.”

The crowd of volunteers that showed up to lay wreaths included hundreds of children, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Across the cemetery, groups of children were paired with volunteer active duty military or retired soldiers who helped children read the headstones and determine which war they fought in.

This aligns with the Horton Wreath Society’s mission to educate younger generations, Hand said.

Navy Admiral Mike Crane, deputy commander of Naval Force Atlantic, stressed the importance of sharing that information.

“Thank you for pausing to honor those who lay down their lives … to protect this country from evil and tyranny,” he said. “They fought for freedom of speech, freedom of religion. They fought to provide freedom for people they had never known or met.

“It’s important to keep those sacrifices fresh in the minds of younger generations.”