Isabel Maldonado was looking forward to celebrating her upcoming 11th birthday later on Saturday. But first, the young Girl Scout had a mission to accomplish at a local cemetery almost a week before Christmas.
“I think it’s important to honor all the veterans that have passed away,” said Isabel, accompanied by her mom, Maria Maldonado. “Just because they’re not there doesn’t mean that we can’t remember them and honor them.”
For more than a decade, groups of volunteers and individuals have gathered on a weekend morning in every kind of mid-December weather to lay holiday wreaths at every grave in Fort Sam National Cemetery.
It takes a small army to accomplish the task at a cemetery where more than 170,000 veterans and their family members are interred across 200 acres. And it’s only one of many places where the Wreaths Across America tradition is upheld every year.
At San Antonio National Cemetery, where Isabel and her mother and hundreds more people gathered, an effort smaller than Fort Sam’s but no less solemn and benevolent to honor the fallen was underway on Saturday.
“Remember, you’re not here today to decorate graves,” Robert Greer told the crowd. “We’re here to remember not their deaths, but their lives. Each wreath is a gift of appreciation from a grateful American.”
Hundreds of volunteers fanned out across the 4-acre cemetery at 517 Paso Hondo St. to say the name of the deceased before placing a wreath at each of the 3,000-plus graves. Veterans paused and saluted their fallen comrades-in-arms.
The wreath-laying tradition, which began at Arlington National Cemetery in 1992 as a way to remember those who served, has spread to at least 3,400 sites in all 50 states and abroad. It is run by the nonprofit Wreaths Across America.
When the ceremony was first held at Fort Sam in 2008, volunteers also paid a visit to San Antonio National Cemetery — with a lone wreath in hand to lay at the Tomb of the Unknown
The oldest national cemetery in Texas, it is smaller and older in comparison to the Fort Sam cemetery. But no less significant.
Buffalo Soldiers and soldiers from the Civil War, Indian War and Spanish-American War are interred in the Eastside cemetery, along with the first Hispanic Medal of Honor recipient and World War I soldier David Bennes Barkley, Cpl. Harry M. Wurzbach and Brig. Gen. John L. Bullis, for whom Camp Bullis is named.
About 12 years ago, members of a local Freemasons fraternal organization who were helping with the distribution of wreaths at Fort Sam wanted to do more for the veterans laid to rest at San Antonio National Cemetery.
Eventually, through a fundraising and recruiting effort, the group was able to expand the number of wreaths to lay at graves.
“Once my family and I went, we were hooked, it felt like an honor,” said Billy Mitchell, who took over organizing the project from a fellow mason in 2010.
Two years later, he passed the reins to the Young Marines of San Antonio, a nonprofit youth education and service group for boys and girls ages 8 through high school graduation.
“[They] turned the program into something to be really proud of,” Mitchell said. “I was just the guy between two better men who really made a difference at the National Cemetery.”
Young Marine Peter Wright, 14, struggled to describe the feeling he gets participating in the color guard ceremony that precedes the wreath-laying.
“It’s a good feeling — you’re giving back to the soldiers that died and it really makes us all feel good,” Wright said.
Led by Alberto and Angelique Salas, the Young Marines group, working with other organizations, this year gathered more wreaths and recruited more volunteers than ever before.
The first time the ceremony was held, there were 73 wreaths to lay, Alberto said; this year, they had more than 3,000.
“A lot of people don’t know about this cemetery at all,” Alberto said. “When you hear ‘National Cemetery in San Antonio,’ everybody automatically thinks of Fort Sam. But with the crowd that we have here today, obviously, the recognition of this location is becoming very well-known.”
Volunteer Anna Becker said she didn’t know the cemetery existed until visiting Saturday. After laying wreaths and preparing to post small flags at other graves, she got choked up when she remembered her friend and hero, a World War II veteran who died recently at age 98.
The soldier had saved others during the war when three live grenades were thrown into his foxhole, she said. He tossed one out, kicked a second into the dirt and sat on the other.
“It’s always hard but then you remember being with them, able to hear their stories and being able to pass them on to the next generation and thank them for what they did,” Becker said.