Arlington National Cemetery and Beyond No One Should Ever Be Forgotten
Wreaths Across America Recognizes the Heart-Felt Efforts of Our Location Coordinators and Volunteers
When asked, "How do you do it all and make it work?" Wreaths Across America Executive Director Karen Worcester and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Wayne Hanson are quick to point out it's the hundreds of thousands of other patriotic and compassionate volunteers throughout this nation who become part of the Wreaths Across America family and put the memory and honor of our fallen heroes above self.
One of those volunteers is Location Coordinator for Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, Judy Carlile who learned about Wreaths Across America when her friend demanded that she join her at the cemetery one Saturday morning in December to lay a wreath.
Judy complied with her friend's request in a bit of an emotional daze having recently buried the "love of her life" and father of her two children retired, decorated Air Force MSG and Vietnam Veteran Jimmy John Carlile in that cemetery with full military honors in 2008. She was facing her first Christmas without Jim, and it was a lonely and painful time. Judy says she laid the wreath that day, but still didn't understand what she had done.
"I went back to the cemetery that night," Judy recalls. "It was like Jim was calling me to come back and look at this again. It touched me so much I just had to know what it was that was behind this amazing effort," Judy recalls.
When a volunteer, whom Judy barely knew, suggested she take over the Location Coordinator's role at Fort Sam Houston she was overwhelmed and had no idea where to start.
"It was just as though God touched my face and said, 'just do it!' and I said, 'okay I've got this, but you've got to tell me what to do' and he truly does," says Judy. "I work full time, and he gives me the strength and the hours to take care of this program. My dream, my heart, my mission is to be able to stand at Jim's headstone and see the rolling hills of Fort Sam with wreaths on every headstone. That's my mission. I believe Jim was preparing me all these years to be sure I would be ready to take care of this effort to honor all these families through Wreaths Across America."
Judy is not alone in her personal mission to remember, honor and teach. Thousands of Wreaths Across America volunteers join her each year to pay tribute to those who have given all to defend the nation and the guiding principles that support liberty and freedom.
When Judy started volunteering seven years ago there were approximately ninety-seven thousand headstones in Fort Sam Houston; today there are over one hundred and fifty thousand.
"It takes my breath away. Since last December we've already added three new sections," explains Judy of the challenge that lies ahead leading up to National Wreaths Across America Day this year. Thankfully, the support for the Wreaths Across America mission has grown as well to keep pace.
"We have grown from about twenty-two groups supporting us in 2015 to over forty as of now, but there's room for more."
Judy has worked with three different cemetery directors over the years and cannot speak highly enough of current Director, Freda Robinson.
"She's amazing, and former military as is her husband," according to Judy. "Her heart is dedicated to Fort Sam, and you can see it in her efforts to make improvements. I'm so thankful to be able to work with her, and she's a huge blessing for us."
The theme for 2016 is, "Say Their Names" and Judy says everyone will be recognized at Fort Sam.
"Even if we fall short of covering every stone with a remembrance wreath, every single name in Fort Sam Houston will be spoken this year, and if there's not a wreath, we'll place a penny on the headstone and say their name. The penny drives are underway, but, my goal is to cover Fort Sam so all those pennies will be used to purchase wreaths for 2017."
Judy says a former cemetery director, who expressed shock and awe upon seeing thousands of volunteers arrive at Fort Sam Houston to place wreaths, asked her how she did it.
"I said, 'It's not me Sir, it's the thousands of people who recognize and understand the meaning of our sacrifices and loss as military families.'"
That cemetery director Gilbert Gallo has since passed and will be one of the names spoken in honor and remembrance in December.
Judy tells us one woman who has become a devoted supporter of the Wreaths Across America efforts at Fort Sam Houston one year discovered a wreath on her infant's grave site and she wanted to know, just as Judy had many years before her, how the remembrance wreath got there. Judy was able to show the woman a photograph in which medical students at Fort Sam Houston, as seen above, had paid respects to her child. The woman was moved and deeply appreciated the gesture.
"I don't know if anybody can truly describe in words what it feels like to lay your first wreath," Judy explains of her commitment to the mission. "There's nothing that will change your heart more quickly than laying your first wreath whether it's for your loved one or someone who you simply say thank you for your service to because once you lay that first wreath you're hooked, and you cannot do this without it changing your heart."