Civil Air Patrol cadets, joined by current and former members of the U.S. Armed Forces, volunteers from nonprofit organizations and families throughout Riverside County, will fan out across Riverside National Cemetery Saturday to place Christmas wreaths at thousands of graves as part an annual salute to the fallen.
"This is our way of remembering them and the sacrifices they made for us," said Maj. Raymond Gould, commander of CAP Squadron 45 at March Air
Reserve Base. "It's a way to honor those who served and teach the next
generation the value of the freedom provided to us."
The cemetery walk will coincide with hundreds of similar deployments nationwide in recognition of National Wreaths Across America Day, in which the Civil Air Patrol, also known as the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, takes a leading role. Squadron 45, a composite unit that's partially comprised of cadets ages 12 to 19 years old, has spearheaded the Wreaths Across America campaign for Riverside National Cemetery over the past decade.
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WAA began, informally, in 1992, when the owners of the Harrington, Maine-based Worcester Wreath Co. wanted to do something positive with their
surplus of holiday wreaths, offering them to Arlington National Cemetery for
graveside placements. That gesture turned into a yearly tradition, eventually
expanding to multiple states, involving members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars placing wreaths.
In the mid 2000s, with CAP's help, the ceremonies were formalized and
scheduled for specific days in December, according to wreathsacrossamerica.org.
CAP officials said some of the wreaths are sponsored, often by relatives of individuals laid to rest at Riverside National Cemetery, and those garlands are taken to specific plots. Otherwise, volunteers try to canvass different segments of the cemetery, where wreaths are placed in orderly arrangements.
Reaching the more than 250,000 graves at the cemetery has never been possible, according to CAP Squadron 45 Maj. Ken Benner. He said the largest number of wreaths ever placed topped just over 12,000, in 2018.
Each wreath costs $15. This year's count totals 10,152, officials said. Squadron 45 and other nonprofit entities seek donations year-round to
support the cause.
Before the deployment begins, there will be a formal ceremony at the cemetery Amphitheater highlighting the meaning of the occasion. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Zwalve, an instructor pilot for the 12th Flying Training Group based in Pensacola, Florida, will deliver the keynote address. His father, also a USAF veteran, is buried at the cemetery.