An emotional Vietnam Veteran and Wreaths Across America volunteer about to lay a memorial wreath upon a grave at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale.
Harry Rathsam of Bethpage is the location coordinator for Wreaths Across America at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, one of the largest resting places for our dearly departed military men and women in the entire country. And in December of every year, Rathsam and his fellow volunteers traverse the massive 364-acre cemetery, dutifully depositing memorial wreaths upon the graves of the fallen.
Volunteers distributing memorial wreaths. Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America
Rathsam notes that Wreaths Across America started approximately 26 years ago in 1992, when the Maine-based Morrill Worcester wreath company had a surplus of leftover inventory one year and decided to offer it to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The administrators of Arlington readily agreed to the donation – totaling approximately 5,000 wreaths – and a photo of the wreaths being laid at the military graves at Arlington at soon inspired a nationwide response, Rathsam said.
“Wreaths Across America has a motto: ‘remember our fallen, honor those who served, and teach the children the value of freedom.’ One day every year, we visit cemeteries throughout the United States and place the wreaths that we get through donations only upon the graves of our fallen,” he said. “On Long Island, myself and my fellow volunteers place the wreaths on the graves at Long Island National Cemetery. Every year we try to spread the word to the people of Long Island...we want to teach everybody about this event.”
Wreaths Across America is entirely volunteer-driven; last year, Rathsam said, the Long Island chapter had about 850 people pitching in to help distribute over 45,000 wreaths at Long Island National Cemetery, and is still actively seeking donations in order to achieve that number this year.
A volunteer dutifully depositing a memorial wreaths upon the gravess of the fallen. Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America
However, Wreaths Across America is about more than just placing a wreath upon the grave of a random military man or woman; there's a high degree of honor and respect involved, with the volunteer involved invoking the name of each and every individual whose wreath they lay, Rathsam said.
“When they put the wreath down, they will say the name of the veteran so that they're not forgotten,” he said. “There's a saying: ‘the veteran dies for the first time when he physically dies, and again the last time his name is ever mentioned.’ This is not some cookie-cutter project where we just throw down wreaths…it's to honor and remember what are veterans have done for us.”
Rathsam noted that participating in Wreaths Across America has gotten him up close and personal with many families of departed veterans, both young and old, and the experience is always deeply affecting to him.
“There are younger veterans at Long Island National Cemetery who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in their twenties,” he said. “We meet their parents, numerous Gold Star mothers and fathers, and to know that their loved ones are never coming home...it's heartbreaking.”
Every year, the volunteers receive deliveries of wreaths purchased through donations, in addition to a list of veteran’s graves to place the wreaths upon. If family members of service members are not able to attend the event, specific requests can be made of volunteers to visit the graves of their loved ones in their place.
Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, one of the largest resting places for our dearly departed military men and women in the entire country. Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America
Rathsam said that he first heard about Wreaths Across America back in 2007, and contacted the organization to see if there was any way he could get involved. Upon finding out that the program was in need of volunteers in order to expand it to Long Island National Cemetery, Rathsam offered his services, and has been a steadfast location coordinator of the event ever since.
While Rathsam himself is not a veteran, he currently has a son serving as a U.S. Marine, having joined the Corps in 2017. In addition, his grandfather's brother was killed fighting in World War I - in fact, Veterans of Foreign Wars #1305 in Mineola is named in his honor - and as a result his family has always been heavily involved in the VFW and its activities throughout the years.
“While I was growing up, the military has always been close to my heart, so to speak, so when I had a chance to do something for our men and women in uniform, I jumped at the opportunity,” he said.
Last year, about 850 people pitched in to help distribute over 45,000 wreaths at Long Island National Cemetery. Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America
The two things Wreaths Across America needs in order to succeed are donations and dedicated volunteers – of any age – who are willing to hike around the massive Long Island National Cemetery to honor our departed veterans; a scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 601 in Farmingdale, Rathsam said that his scouts are avid participants in the event every year.
Rathsam noted that being able to honor the veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice to safeguard the freedoms that we all hold so dearly has meant a great deal to him.
“It's so inspiring...I've met veterans from World War II, including a 92 year-old Navy sailor and a father whose son was killed the second year we were doing this,” he said. “And to talk with them and hear their pain and their grief directly, and to see that the veterans that are older understand that we haven't forgotten about them, even though they fought for us 40, 50, 60 years ago...it really hits home to see how much they appreciate what we do.”
"Remember our fallen, honor those who served, and teach the children the value of freedom." Photo Credit: Wreaths Across America
If you're interested in getting involved with Wreaths Across America, including giving donations to this very good cause, you can visit their official website; from there, you can indicate where you would like the wreaths you purchase to go, including Long Island National Cemetery. The wreaths must all come from donations; there are over 340,000 interments at the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, and it is Wreaths Across America’s goal to be able to cover every single grave.