BUSHNELL — Thousands of red-ribboned wreaths brightened the far-reaching green plots and white headstones at Florida National Cemetery on Saturday as veterans, families and military supporters took part in Wreaths Across America Day.
Hernando County residents made their mark, donating and laying more wreaths than ever since the holiday event's inception at Arlington National Cemetery in 1992.
The Walmart Distribution Center in Ridge Manor coordinated this year's local initiative, sending 5,865 wreaths to the ceremony and organizing a convoy of almost 70 motorcycles and 200 cars to the site.
James F. Smith, the distribution center's director of transportation, said the number compares with 3,600 wreaths last year. Also, 132 of the distribution center's associates signed up to participate. Walmart, the largest corporate supporter of Wreaths Across America, donated $150,000 nationwide for wreath purchases.
In Florida, as elsewhere, motorcycle riders led the cause. On the North Suncoast, they included the U.S. Military Veterans, Flag Riders, Patriot Guard Riders and independent groups.
Dave Koutroubas of Inglis paced the Flag Riders. The windshield of his bike bore a decal featuring his son, Jason, an Army intelligence specialist, killed in Iraq on the day after his 21st birthday.
Gesturing to the lineup of cycles behind his preparing to head to the cemetery, Koutroubas said, "We are very patriotic, obviously. We're very much a brotherhood."
Stephen Woodbury, with the Pasco County U.S. Military Vets, noted that his group's first run to the Bushnell cemetery started with 17 wreaths and perhaps 50 onlookers.
At the cemetery, a crowd estimated at 3,000 to 4,000 gathered, many in red, white and blue clothing or uniforms of groups ranging from the Youth Cadet Squadron to the Civil Air Patrol.
Anita Lewis of Spring Hill wore a T-shirt bearing the words "In Loving Memory." She knelt to place a wreath on the grave of her son, Army Spec. 4 Cody Grater, killed at the age of 21 in Iraq on July 27, 2007. The Spring Hill post office was renamed in Grater's honor.
Madelyn McFarquhar of Tampa, attending her first Wreaths Across America ceremony, said she hadn't sponsored a wreath, "but I will definitely sponsor one next year."
Her father and grandfather served in the Air Force, spanning conflicts from World War II to Vietnam.
Eugenia Forte of Orlando, whose husband, Robert, died of complications incurred while serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War, said, "I just had to be here."
The honor guard from Spring Hill Detachment 708 of the Marine Corps League performed a 21-gun salute at the close of the ceremony.
The program at Florida National Cemetery was one of two that was conducted locally Saturday.
Back in Hernando County, 250 wreaths were placed at Florida Hills Memorial Gardens by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10209, DAV Post 67, Elks Lodge 2582, the Enrichment Centers of Brooksville and Spring Hill regional hospitals, and Turner Funeral Homes.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.