FORT MILL — Nearly 50 young men and women from the Fort Mill and Nation Ford JROTC and the Civil Air Patrol stood at attention at Unity Presbyterian Cemetery Saturday. Sirens sounded as police escorted a group of Patriot Guard Riders onto Unity Street. The riders filed into the cemetery followed by two trucks carrying boxes full of wreaths.
The Civil Air Patrol and ROTC cadets broke ranks and began unloading the trucks. Carefully, they made their way around the cemetery, methodically looking at headstones for indications that the deceased was a veteran.
When the cadets found a veteran’s grave, they placed a wreath gently on the headstone, stepped back, and saluted.
“I have family in the military,” said Lexi Collins, a sophomore at Nation Ford High School. “This is just a way to pay my respects.”
Joe Passanisi, a member of the Patriot Guard, walked across the cemetery with purpose and stopped at a specific spot. He looked down at a basket of Christmas flowers set on the grave of a friend who died only six months ago. Passanisi placed a wreath carefully on the grave of Drury “Nat” Helms, a Fort Mill native who was instrumental in the creation of the Veteran’s Memorial Park in downtown Fort Mill.
Helms served 22 years with the U.S. Air Force and the N.C. Air National Guard and was a veteran of the war in Vietnam.
“Everything in the world was about was helping people, especially veterans. Putting a wreath on his grave means a lot to me,” Passanisi said.
Wreaths Across America is a nonprofit organization that coordinates wreath laying ceremonies for veterans’ graves at cemeteries around the country.
More than 700 locations across the country joined Arlington National Cemetery placing holiday wreaths on the graves of servicemen Saturday.
In Fort Mill, the public was invited to attend the ceremony at Unity Presbyterian Church cemetery, as well as a breakfast afterward at the Fort Mill VFW and a dedication of the wreaths at the Fort Mill Veteran’ Park. More than 200 wreaths were laid on veterans’ graves at Unity’s cemetery.
The wreaths were paid for by donations. There are more than 800 veterans’ graves in the cemetery and event organizers hope that as the event grows, they will raise enough money to honor each veteran with a wreath. Until then, the wreaths are dedicated to the memory of all of the veterans in the cemetery.
Ted Greer brought his family to be part of the event at Unity. They took place in the Wreaths Across America ceremony at Arlington last year and wanted to join the event in Fort Mill this year.
It has become a holiday tradition for the family, he said.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in the parties and the ‘I wants,’ and this is a way for us to give back. Everyone focuses on going to the store and buying things, and that’s not what is important,” Greer said.