Wreaths Across America exhibit includes honors for Vietnam vets
STEUBENVILLE — A mobile museum promoting the mission of Wreaths Across America to “Remember, Honor and Teach” had a Jefferson County presence May 16 in the Fort Steuben Mall parking lot.
The stop in Steubenville from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. was one of 13 being made in Ohio communities during May as part of its ongoing national tour to honor veterans and WAA supporters.
Le’Ann Gibbons, secretary of the Unionport Chapter No. 360, Order of the Eastern Star and a local coordinator for Wreaths Across America, orchestrated the local stop and served as mistress of ceremonies for a program highlighted by honoring Vietnam veterans who never got the proper welcome home they deserved.
Gibbons explained how she got involved in Wreaths Across America, and how the OES-adopted project now includes 12 local cemeteries where wreaths are placed on the graves of veterans during ceremonies held on the third Saturday in December.
She credited her grandson for her involvement, noting when he was 8 and active in the Young Marines, he decided that, as a present for his birthday in December, he wanted to help lay wreaths on veterans’ graves. As worthy matron at the time of the OES chapter, Gibbons said the group was looking to take on a project and get out in the community more.
“I thought if at 8 years old, that was important to my grandson, at my age, that should have been more important to me,” Gibbons said.
Wreaths Across America is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded to continue and expand the annual wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery begun by Maine businessman Morrill Worcester in 1992. The organization’s mission — Remember, Honor, Teach — is carried out in part each year by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies in December at Arlington, as well as thousands of veterans’ cemeteries and other locations in all 50 states and beyond.
Anyone can sponsor a veteran’s wreath for $15 at www.wreathacrossamerica.org.
The traveling exhibit serves as a mobile museum, educating visitors about the service and sacrifice of the nation’s heroes as well as serving as an official “welcome home” station for Vietnam veterans. It touts the history and purpose of the national nonprofit, teaches patriotism and details the work its volunteers do. Visitors on Monday were free to tour the exhibits, obtain information and watch a brief movie.
The official program, which began with the posting of the colors by members of the Tri-State Young Marines, included remarks from several local officials.
Amber Kohler, field representative for U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, read a statement on his behalf, noting he had to be in Washington, D.C., and regretted his inability to attend.
“As a proud veteran with more than 26 years of active Air Force service, I am grateful to America’s heroes, those who willingly risked their lives to serve our country and protect our freedoms,” she began. “I also believe that our support for those heroes must continue after they are welcomed back home. One of my top priorities is ensuring that our veterans and their families promptly receive the benefits, care and services they have for their sacrifices and their service,” Kohler read to the audience. “Bringing honor and respect to the men and women who served our nation is the least we can do. I’m glad to see members of our country and community step up and take the time to ensure that no veterans – especially our Vietnam veterans – are forgotten through exhibits like the one that is here today, courtesy of the volunteers with Wreaths Across America,” she continued.
“The mission of Wreaths Across America is to remember, honor and teach. By holding events such as this one, it is doing exactly that. Sometimes we turn on the news, and we are peppered with negative stories or videos that bring us down. Today here at Fort Steuben Mall, we are seeing the exact opposite. There are people in groups doing good things and having a positive impact on so many. Please continue the great work you’re doing here, and God bless all of the volunteers and everyone involved with making today’s events possible,” she added, thanking veterans in attendance and noting she is the daughter of a veteran.
State Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, shared a number of lessons he said he learned during his 30 years of service in the military, including to never let fear enter your heart, to trust your gear, to rely on your training and to deal with the nearest threat first and work your way out from there.
“Stay in the fight, never give up – combat mindset, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how much you’ve got to suck it up. If you’ve got to take one more step, take that step. If you’ve got to help your buddy, help your buddy,” he said.
The need for clear, concise communications; belief in God since there “is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole;” teamwork; making the right decisions; attitude – “yours is the only one you can control;” and “never become your first obstacle,” Hoagland continued.
“Last but not least, never forget the ones that didn’t make it home with us. Never forget those that did not make it home,” Hoagland said to an applauding audience.
“I believe every day is Veterans Day,” he said. “Being a military guy, I know that we the damned few have proudly stood our post, and we were properly relieved when we finally came home. We should never forget the ones who didn’t make it back either,” Hoagland said, expressing appreciation to veterans in the audience.
Musical selections were provided by Jefferson County Commissioner Tom Graham, who also offered comments. “We thank you, veterans, because we’re the land of the free because we’re the home of the brave, and without you, we wouldn’t be standing here today,” Graham said.
Roger Sliva of the Adena American Legion Post 525 said he is a local coordinator of WAA for cemeteries in the Adena area along with his wife and family. The post is involved in the 50-year commemorative period marking the end of the Vietnam War, explained Sliva, who had an informational booth about that and WAA.
Sliva said the servicemen and women didn’t return home from Vietnam “to a kind of appreciation a grateful nation should have shown, and we want you to know that we love and appreciate all the sacrifices you have made. We salute you and thank you for your service. Welcome home, gentlemen.”
Fred Thompson and his wife, Diane, are volunteers who have helped drive the exhibit to several Ohio communities, having arrived in Steubenville from Zanesville.
“This is our ninth stop in Ohio in the last couple of weeks, and each time we’ve been welcomed with open arms, and we’ve met lots of great people, lots of great veterans and their families and support people, and we’re just very happy to be here today,” Thompson said, noting WAA applauds all veterans of all wars “but this being the 50th commemorative time of the remembrance of the end of the Vietnam War, today is something special for our Vietnam veterans,” he said.
He explained how a presidential proclamation was signed by President Barack Obama on May 12 2012, designating the time frame on Memorial Day 2012 to Veterans Day 2025 as a time to remember the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and to thank and welcome home all Vietnam veterans from that era. A special lapel pin was designed for presentation to all veterans from the Vietnam War era. On March 28, 2017, President Donald Trump re-signed the proclamation and also signed into law with Congress the Vietnam Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, designating every March 29 as National Vietnam Veterans Day.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are more than 6 million Vietnam veterans living in America and abroad, he added.
“Upon their return, many of them were treated with hatefulness, animosity and rudeness. Many were spat upon,” Thompson said. “They were disrespected in many different ways instead of receiving the hero’s welcome they deserved. Many of these brave veterans with their families still live with the scars, both physical and mental injuries they suffered during battle in this horrific war. As we gather here today, and as much as we’d like to, we cannot change what happened back then, but hopefully through our actions today, we can bring a little more closure and healing to that bad period of time in our nation’s history,” he continued.
“We must also make certain that that never happens in our country again. Never again will we allow our military personnel to return home without a hero’s welcome and thank you for their service which they so deserve. We must always show our military soldiers and veterans the utmost respect and gratitude that they deserve,” he said, extending a “welcome home, solider,” salutation.
Thompson’s comments were followed by the presentation of the lapel pins and a medallion from WAA to Vietnam War veterans on hand.
The Unionport OES chapter sold baked goods with proceeds going toward sponsorships of wreaths for this year’s WAA ceremony Dec. 17 at noon at area cemeteries along with some proceeds from Texas Roadhouse conducting a “Dine to Donate.”