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Christmas hasn’t been the same for Irene Caruso since Aug. 16, 2019.

That’s when her husband, Guy Caruso, was struck dead by a car while riding his motorcycle along Interstate 15. Christmas was the Navy veteran’s favorite holiday, and he loved to fashion his own holiday trees by connecting a couple metal poles and wrapping them in lights.

On Saturday morning, Caruso knelt by her husband’s grave and quietly recited the rosary — just like she does every day at Miramar National Cemetery. Only this time, the 56-year-old Rancho Peñasquitos resident wasn’t alone. By 8 a.m., cars along both sides of the cemetery’s Nobel Drive entrance had slowed to a crawl, packed with both relatives of fallen veterans and strangers eager to pay their respects and lay more than 13,000 wreaths by their graves.

Similar scenes played out at eight cemeteries across San Diego County — including Rosecrans National Cemetery, where families, volunteers and the public laid 9,300 wreaths — and at roughly 3,100 sites across the U.S.

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“It brings everybody together to remember. Every person in here did something for us. They’re our heroes,” said Caruso through tears. “We can’t forget.”

PFC Isaiah Rosario Gonell stands watch among headstones

PFC Isaiah Rosario Gonell stood watch until a family member could arrive to place a Christmas wreath at the headstone of fallen service member on Saturday.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Saturday’s event was organized by Wreaths Across America, a national nonprofit. But back in 1992, there was no organization. There was one man, Morrill Worcester, who owned a wreath company and had about 5,000 extra wreaths. So he and his family decided to take the surplus to Arlington National Cemetery and lay the wreaths at some of the cemetery’s earliest graves, knowing that these veterans likely no longer had anyone to visit them.

That effort quietly continued until 2005, when a photo of neat white headstones adorned with fir wreaths as far as the eye could see went viral. The image triggered an outpouring of support, interest and donations that led to the formation of Wreaths Across America.

Veteran families spent about an hour Saturday morning privately laying wreaths for their loved ones, with active military members keeping watch by the headstones. Each wreath had been sponsored by $15 donations and shipped from Maine in an 18-wheeler.

Later, in a small ceremony at the cemetery’s flag assembly area, members of each military branch laid a ceremonial wreath. The occasion was marked by moments of prayer, the national anthem and pledge of allegiance, and a playing of taps.

Usually, the assembly area would have been filled with a crush of people. But organizers scaled things down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though they’re hopeful for a bigger ceremony next year.

Brenda Kaesler, project coordinator for the morning’s program, took a moment to address the crowd, which included part of a Marine unit from Camp Pendleton. There were also members of Scouts BSA, formerly known as Boy Scouts of America, including an all-girls troop that presented the U.S. and California flags.

We die twice, Kaesler said. Once, when we draw our last breath, and again the final time our name is said out loud.
It’s all deeply personal for her. Kaesler’s son, Jeffrey, was a U.S. Army medic who served 4½ years and was deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. While in Iraq, he suffered a traumatic brain injury after his Humvee was blasted by a rocket-propelled grenade. He made it out but died in April 2015 of an aneurysm linked to his wartime injuries.

Tammy Neben touched the top of her father Yick Yee’s headstone

Tammy Neben touched the top of her father Yick Yee’s headstone as part of the Wreaths Across America program Saturday. From left, Steve Neben, Donna Fontaine (daughter to Yick Yee), Doris Yee (wife of Yick Yee) and Katerina Yee (granddaughter) also pay their respects.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kaesler fears that her son will be forgotten when she’s gone. But she reassured the service members gathered Saturday that they need not worry about that.

“When you are not here anymore, and when people who love you are not here anymore to talk about you, every year, someone will put a wreath on your headstone and say your name out loud to keep your spirit alive.”

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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