Harry Rathsam has been the volunteer coordinator for Long Island National Cemetery since the beginning of the program in 2006.
That year, he called for more information about the program, which was scheduled to take place in five days. He was told that there was no one responsible for placing wreaths at one of the largest veterans’ cemeteries in the country. Rathsam stepped up and has grown the program from that day.
In 2006, about 20 people gathered to place five wreaths on the graves of some of our nation’s heroes.
Gradually, the numbers began to increase and more groups, including Manhasset’s Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, participated. In 2016, in icy and rainy weather, approximately 200 participants placed 3,000 wreaths.
Rathsam then set a goal of 5,000 wreaths for 2017. This sounds like a tremendous number until you learn that the cemetery contains approximately 340,000 grave sites.
Following the interview, wonderful things began to happen. By Dec. 8, more than 450 volunteers were registered to help. Then Rathsam received information that more than 25,000 wreaths were scheduled for Long Island National Cemetery. Amazingly, this number changed on Dec.15, the day before the event. There were now 45,000 wreaths arriving.
In addition, a banquet was planned for that evening at the Long Island Marriott in Melville.
Pat O’Brien and Elizabeth Parrella, the president and vice president of the Manhasset American Legion Auxiliary, along with American Legion member Donald O’Brien attended. A representative of Wreaths Across America served as the emcee for the evening and introduced some of the many corporations and trucking companies that so generously volunteer to assist in the distribution of wreaths.
The professional drivers scheduled for the following morning also attended. The keynote speaker was General Raymond Fox and other speakers included a Gold Star Mother, Emily Torres, who said she would gladly tell us about her son, if you asked how he lived, not how he died.
Active military personnel were also in attendance. One thing that was very clear throughout the evening was that those present proudly lived this year’s Wreaths Across America theme, “I’m an American. Yes, I am!”
The next morning temperatures hovered around the freezing mark but did not stop the enthusiasm of the approximately 800 volunteers who came to honor some of the nation’s heroes.
Cheers arose among the crowd as the nine tractor trailers entered the cemetery with the wreaths. In that crowd were the O’Briens, Parrella, Carol-Anne Condon and parents of Boy Scouts from Troop 97, Ann Marie Moschitta, Linda and Martin Clarke, Elizabeth Miller, Selva Venkatesan, Anja D’Angelo and Michael Dea. They brought their sons, Matthew, Martin, Steven, Sharath, Bharath, James and Andrew to teach them about remembering and honoring those who have served in the military and, in too many instances, have died for the freedoms so often taken for granted.
At noon, Rathsam conducted the service and reminded everyone of the importance of remembering our fallen U.S. veterans, honoring those who serve, and teaching children the value of freedom. He also reminded everyone to speak the name of the veteran when placing a wreath at a gravesite. He mentioned a basic tenet of Wreaths Across America, “A person dies twice: once when they take their final breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken.”
Each wreath was marked with a tag reading, “Today I placed a wreath on the grave of an American Hero.” While walking through the cemetery, the names of those heroes who served could be heard clearly as the volunteers remembered them before placing a wreath.
By 2:30 p.m. all the wreaths had been placed and the trucks were back on the road along with the volunteers who had participated in what is always a very emotional event.
Please help make 2018 an even bigger event by your presence and your wreath donations. To learn more about or to become a donor, visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org.
For information about other programs supported by the American Legion Auxiliary, contact Pat O’Brien at 516-850-5702 or firstname.lastname@example.org.