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Volunteers honor fallen vets one wreath at a time at Florida National Cemetery

Ashley Durand of Tampa and her children, Vianne, 6, (foreground) and Ciaran, 3, say a prayer during the annual Wreaths Across America event held on Dec. 14 at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. [MICHELE MILLER  |  Times]
Ashley Durand of Tampa and her children, Vianne, 6, (foreground) and Ciaran, 3, say a prayer during the annual Wreaths Across America event held on Dec. 14 at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]
Published Dec. 17, 2019

BUSHNELL — Thom Danakas took his time. Carrying two Christmas wreaths in each hand, he weaved through the rows of narrow, white headstones, reading the names of fallen veterans.

This was a deliberate choice, one the Spring Hill man has made time and again over the 10 years he’s been laying wreaths at Florida National Cemetery.

Thom Danakas of Spring Hill weaves his way through the rows of white, narrow headstones during the Wreaths Across America Day event held on Dec. 14 at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell and other sites throughout the country. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

“He’s a Vietnam vet, and I look for Vietnam vets,” Danakas said after settling on the grave site of Johnnie S. Miller.

Danakas, an Army veteran, served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. A lot of his friends have passed away, he said, “so this is a way to honor them.”

Honor undoubtedly was on the minds of thousands of volunteers who came out for the annual Wreaths Across America Day on Dec. 14 at Florida National Ceremony and at other sites across the country.

Location coordinator Randy Lewer helped organize the first event at the Bushnell cemetery in 2006. He served in multiple branches of the military and was prompted to join this effort while serving with the Honor Guard and seeing too many military funerals with no loved ones in attendance.

“We started with six wreaths. We have 36,000 this year,” he said, adding that the “ultimate goal” is to have a wreath placed on each of the 110,000 graves.

Some 36,000 Christmas wreaths were placed during the Wreaths Across America Day event held Dec. 14 at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

Volunteers are asked follow a protocol, Lewer said. Those who place a wreath should honor that veteran by saying his or her name out loud.

“It is said that a veteran dies twice — when they die and when their name is said no more,” he said. “We refuse to let that veteran die a second time.”

Lisa Knous-Green, president of the Dade City Women’s Club, came to honor her father-in-law, Thomas Green, who is buried with his wife Allie Pearl Green, and to place wreaths purchased by the club.

“It’s pretty neat, pretty emotional,” she said. “You might not know who’s here, but you’re paying homage.”

Ashley Durand, of Tampa, had no personal connection. But she wanted to make sure her children, Vianne, 6, and Ciaran, 3, understood the sacrifice others have made. They were part of a volunteer contingency from the Epiphany of Our Lord Catholic Church in Tampa. They stopped to acknowledge the veterans and sometimes their spouses, then said a prayer at each site where they laid a wreath.

Pasco High NJROTC cadets Olivia Bermudez (left) and Noah Neptune (right) salute after laying a wreath during the annual Wreaths Across America Day event held Dec. 14 at Florida National Cemetery. Volunteers laid some 36,000 wreaths at the Bushnell cemetery [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

Pasco High Navy JROTC cadet Lowell Sammons, 15, helped place wreaths with his unit. He arrived before the crowds, at 5 a.m., to place wreaths with his Boy Scout troop, as well.

“We’re honoring the veterans who fought for our country and let us have the freedom we have today,” he said.

It was an emotional visit for Larry Decker of Spring Hill. He came with his daughter, Cheyenne Garcia, and other loved ones to honor his stepson.

Cheyanne Garcia and her dad, Larry Decker of Springhill, share a hug at the gravesite of his stepson and her brother, Cody Clark Grater, during Wreaths Across America Day held Dec. 14 at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

Cody Clark Grater served with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division and was killed in Iraq on July 29, 2007. He was 20 years old.

“It’s something you never get over," Decker said, wiping tears. “We come here every year for this. It’s a day to honor not just him, but every one of these souls who gave their lives for their country.”

For information on the Wreaths Across America Day at Florida National Cemetery or to sponsor a wreath, go to www.wreathsacrossamericabushnell.com/

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