PRESCOTT - The Prescott National Cemetery Saturday represented one of about 400 American military veteran burial sites to simultaneously participate in "Wreaths Across America," an annual ceremony that recognizes our country's fallen armed forces members over the holidays.
At 10 a.m. under fairly warm, sunny skies and a light wind, about 100 people, including vets and their families, gathered at the cemetery off Highway 69 near the Bob Stump Veterans Affairs Hospital to place Christmas wreaths with singular red bows on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier monument.
Fourteen Arizona Patriot Guard Riders held U.S. flags in a single-file line as representatives from every branch of the military - the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard - and the U.S. Merchant Marine put down wreaths around the base of the white marble obelisk.
Others placed wreaths at the monument in honor of the military's prisoners of war and those still missing in action. The Prescott National Memorial Ladies, Daughters of the American Revolution, Scottish American Military Society, Blue Star Mothers and Gold Star Mothers also participated.
American Legion Riders and the legion's honor guard as well as Patriot Guard Riders and Junior Air Force ROTC members from Prescott High School all were on hand for the ceremony, too.
Lorie Smith, a Patriot Guard Rider who was chosen by "Help on the Homefront" in Phoenix to serve as the Wreaths Across America coordinator here this year, said the guards from her group in Arizona adopted Prescott National Cemetery for the event.
From a podium, Smith led the 45-minute-long ceremony, giving a brief speech before introducing the wreath-laying representatives, who carried wreaths over to the monument one by one.
"The United States of America was founded on the ideals of freedom, justice and equality," Smith said during the speech. "We thank those who gave their lives to keep us free, and we shall not forget you."
On Friday afternoon, several volunteers, including PHS's ROTC members, placed wreaths on 288 of the 3,200 head stones that blanket the cemetery plot. Those wreaths primarily lined the entryway. Others put down wreaths at the base of the common burial wall along the cemetery's west side.
"We do this to teach our children the importance of honoring those who have served," Smith said.
Dan Tillmans, a Vietnam-era Army veteran and captain of the American Legion Post 6 Honor Guard in Prescott, concurred.
"It's important to remember veterans on Christmas, and let them know they're not forgotten," he added.
On Saturday, similar to what is done during a military honors funeral, Tillmans led 10 honor guard members in shooting three rifle volleys and the playing of "Taps" at the conclusion of the ceremony.
John Moffitt, former City of Prescott attorney who represents the Yarnell-based American Legion Riders Post 79 and is a ride captain with the Patriot Guard Riders, placed a wreath at the tomb monument in honor of the Army. He also attended a funeral and memorial service just prior to the wreath ceremony.
Moffitt said he and other Patriot Guard Riders, who ride motorcycles, perform honor guard and funeral escorts for deceased veterans every year. They also conduct welcome home visits for troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan and escort troops being deployed overseas. Most of these so-called "missions" occur in Phoenix, although the riders cover the entire state.
"We just want to make sure our veterans are treated well when they come back and when they leave," Moffitt said.
Harold Thomas, 58, the Arizona state captain for the Patriot Guard Riders who is based in Phoenix, said his contingent averages about 300 missions per year.
"About half of them are funeral services for either soldiers killed in action or active-duty troops that have passed in non-combat related (incidents) and our veterans," said Thomas, a Vietnam War-era Air Force vet. "The balance is for things such as this."
Currently, the Patriot Guard Riders in Arizona, a nonprofit organization, are recruiting more members to assist with their missions. Members do not have to be veterans or own a motorcycle.
Five years ago, when the Patriot Guard Riders in Arizona first started, they had 24 members. They now have 3,000 in this state, joining the approximately 200,000 others in America.
For more information about how to become a Patriot Guard Rider, contact Moffitt via e-mail at email@example.com or log on to www.standtallstandproud.org.