Volunteers from throughout the community placed wreaths on veterans’ graves in Beaufort National Cemetery in 2021. ANDREA HOERNER

Again this year, local Wreaths Across America donors hope to place wreaths on all the graves in Beaufort National Cemetery at the annual holiday presentation Dec. 17.

More than 26,000 wreaths will be needed to mark the graves of those veterans and family members interred in the cemetery, and Sun City Hilton Head’s Andy Hoerner has been a big part of generating the gated community’s participation. 

She began her push for wreaths in 2017 in her neighborhood of Okatie Village after hearing about it from her husband. 

“Jim was a member of the Sun City Veterans Association. He came back from a meeting and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. They lay all these wreaths up in Beaufort National,’” she said. “So I looked into it, and I started in my neighborhood. That first year, we raised $1,600.”

From the youngest Army private to the oldest Navy admiral, those buried in national cemeteries across the nation are honored each December during wreath-laying ceremonies.

Beaufort National Cemetery on Boundary Street is the final resting place for more than 26,000 military members and their spouses. Those interred represent every conflict from the Spanish American War to current combat casualties.

Established by Abraham Lincoln as a national cemetery in 1863, it began as the burial site of patients from local Union hospitals. The historic site contains unknown soldiers as well famous leaders, Medal of Honor recipients and drummer boys. This year, nine unclaimed veterans’ bodies will be laid to rest at Beaufort National at 11 a.m. Dec. 9.

Although this year’s donations are less than those for 2021, Hoerner’s reach and that modest initial sum have grown. Participants live in more than 50 of the community’s neighborhoods, especially since Wreaths Across America is now an official group within Sun City’s official activities. The organization raised $81,390 last year and was able to donate 15,561 wreaths. By the donation deadline of Nov. 29 this year, the Sun City group had raised more than $72,000.

“We’re on our way to having a great year, and we are so pleased so many people are helping,” she said. “In combination with other organizations, and excess wreaths from other cemeteries, the entire cemetery was covered last year. And we have signed up for a new program that will provide us with three wreaths for every two purchased.”

The wreath tradition began in 1992 when Maine businessman Morrill Worcester was left with a surplus of 5,000 holiday wreaths. He offered them to adorn the graves in Arlington National Cemetery that year, then continued delivering them each following year. 

The donation continued quietly until 2005, when a photo of the scene circulated on the internet. Money from all over the country quickly poured in to purchase even more wreaths for Arlington, and the individual tribute became a national movement. 

The beribboned greens will be placed at more than 250,000 Arlington graves this year. Wreaths are currently placed at 3,137 participating locations, and more than two million volunteers placed 2.4 million wreaths in 2021. 

There are about 33 organizations in Beaufort County contributing, according to the Wreaths Across America website. Among the many Beaufort County organizations supporting the Wreaths Across America efforts are the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 12, the Sun City Veterans Association, Okatie Boy Scout Troop 213, the Emily Geiger Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Bluffton American Legion Post 205, and Congregation Beth Yam.

National Wreaths Across America Day will begin promptly at noon in each time zone around the world. For Beaufort National Cemetery, that will be preceded by the arrival of a very audible phalanx of motorcycle groups escorting several tractor trailers laden with cases of wreaths. Hundreds of volunteer professional truck drivers driving donated equipment and fuel from 390 carriers delivered the greenery across the country last year.

Waiting in the entryway of the cemetery will be local volunteers – from excited grade school children to graying veterans with canes, from scouts to color guards – all waiting to place an armful of wreaths on some of the many graves. 

As they place a wreath, each volunteer will be asked to say the name cut into that marker to acknowledge that the buried are not forgotten.

The deadline to donate has passed, but in keeping with this year’s Wreaths Across America theme, “Find a Way to Serve,” anyone may show up to help place the wreaths. Volunteers are also needed for the wreath removal on Jan. 14.

It is recommended that volunteers arrive about 10 a.m. and be dressed for whatever weather is predicted. The ceremonial area fills quickly.

For more information, visit wreathsacrossamerica.org/pages/14942 for Beaufort National Cemetery.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.