The 12th annual Marion County Wreaths Across America ceremony at Highlands Memorial Park on Saturday took an unexpected turn when an announcement was made that the 1,300 wreaths to be placed on veterans' gravesites were on a disabled tractor-trailer with the last known whereabouts in Mississippi.
Organizers had waited late Friday expecting the arrival of the shipment and looked for the truck up to the opening ceremony. A flat tire was a last-minute delay.
"The truck had major problems," said John Grimstead, one of the founders of the local event.
Upwards of 400 people came to lay wreaths as Wreath Across America.org states to "honor, remember and teach" about the service of American military veterans.
Suzanne McGuire, secretary of the Marion County Veterans Council and an organizer of the ceremony, said about 1,200 of the wreaths on the truck were for placement at Highlands Memorial Park and the additional supply was intended to be used for ceremonial placement on the entrances of local cemeteries that contain veterans' burial sites.
Grimstead and other organizers put a positive spin on the wreath delay by inviting family members and other attendees to visit veterans' gravesites in the memorial park and remember their names, sacrifice and service.
Cathy Thacker, wife of U.S. Army sergeant and Vietnam War veteran Randy Thacker, who died Sept. 6 at age 72, placed a ceremonial wreath in honor of her husband during the opening ceremony.
"Thank you for your service," she said as she placed the wreath on a stand.
"It's wonderful we can honor all veterans," Cathy Thacker said.
The Wreaths Across America program was started by Morrill Worchester in 1992 and by 2014, 226,525 wreaths were laid on National Wreaths Across America Day, usually the weekend before Christmas.
The local program was spearheaded by the late Eddie Jaworski of American Legion Al Krietemeyer Memorial Post 284 in Belleview, along with John Grimstead and Danny Rowett of the post.
Grimstead and Rowlett continue to organize the event in partnership with the Marion County Veterans Council, and support from other veterans' groups.
Many at the opening ceremony said they would return for a session to place the wreaths when they arrive in Ocala, including several members of the Krull family who came to place a wreath on the gravesite of World War II veteran George Richard Krull. who passed away on October 6, 2017, at age 90.
He is buried in Highland Memorial Park with his wife, Lois.
"My father's service was a very important part of his life and we enjoyed his stories," said his daughter Lisa Roberts, who was accompanied at their father’s burial site by her sister, Patti Younge.
Roberts said her father joined the U.S. Navy "at age 17 right out of high school" and served on a ship during World War II. A Hiers-Baxley Funeral Home obituary states Krull was a native of Michigan and moved to Ocala in 1964.
"Absolutely, it's very important. We will be back" to place a wreath, Roberts said.
Sherry Barnhart came to place a wreath on the gravesite of her husband, James Barnhart, 73, an Army veteran.
Jerry Dobbins, Army veteran, and Ken Batzelle,88, a Korean War veteran, came to lay wreaths. Both indicated they would return.
Victoria Harrinaraine, 15, carried the Coast Guard emblem flag as part of Forest High School Air Force Jr. ROTC Honor Guard. The Junior ROTC group had about 50 members overall to lay wreaths.
"It's important to honor veterans who gave their lives for us," she said.
Adisen Smith, 17, with FHS JROTC, said it "means a lot" to honor veterans who served the country.
Elizabeth Coleman, president of the Ocala Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, headed a group of at least 20 members set to place wreaths.
She said the group donated $500 this year for wreaths and the chapter plans to work in partnership next year with local organizers. DAR is a corporate sponsor of Wreaths Across America.
Coast Guard veteran Michael Kelso invited American Legion Post 284 Honor Guard members Michelle McNeice, Rick Matheny, Brian Ploetz, Dave Salcito, Jason Osborn, and Richard Dean to lay ceremonial wreaths for veterans and currently serving members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.
Bugler Donald Smith sounded taps, and Berry Wright served as sergeant at arms for the ceremony.
Grimstead told the attendees the ceremony was meant to "honor the fallen."
When laying wreaths, volunteers are asked to say the veteran's name after placing the wreath while holding their hand on their hearts or giving a hand salute.
"A person dies twice: when he takes his last breath and when his name is said for the last time," Grimstead said, encouraging the volunteers to speak the veterans' names.
Rowlett said laying wreaths pays homage to those who "stood up to protect the innocent and the oppressed."
State Senators Dennis Baxley and Keith Perry attended the ceremony. Perry said lessons like the value of veterans' service must be passed on to youth and if it is not done in schools, it is "our responsibility."
Carrie Priebe, wife of Navy veteran Devlin Priebe, who passed away in 2016 at age 55, said she will be back to place a wreath and to "honor all veterans."
Heather and Jesse Brose and their son, Benjamin, 7, attended the ceremony. Heather Brose is Cubmaster of Pack 18 and Benjamin is a member. Heather Brose said the family has attended the ceremony for a number of years and finds it to be a "teaching experience" for their son.
"It's great," Benjamin said, adding that it "feels good" to honor veterans.
Suzanne McGuire said in a late development that the trucking company had contacted organizers and said the wreath shipment should arrive at Highlands Memorial Park sometime after 10 a.m.
Updates can be obtained through Suzannelmcfl1@gmail.com or by calling McGuire said contributor for next year's program can check on the wreathsacrossamerica.org website and see the local program FL 1028 for possible matching donations in the first few weeks of 2023.
This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Wreaths Across America, without the wreaths, still honored veterans