Gone but never forgotten; American heroes honored in ‘Wreaths Across America’ ceremonies

SOUTHERN UTAH — Though it says “SEE VEETS ENG SOEETS EEHYPE,” or “Shivwits warriors are gone” at the top of a monument honoring veterans at the Shivwits Band of Paiutes Cemetery, it was evident they’ll never be forgotten at a ceremony for “Wreaths Across America” Saturday afternoon.

Shivwits Band of Paitues Princess Emma Nava thanks veterans for their service at “Wreaths Across America” ceremony, Dec. 15, 2018 | Photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

Beginning with a handshake and heartfelt thank you to veterans in attendance for their service from this year’s Shivwits princess, Emma Nava, the annual wreath-laying ceremony was a chance to share stories of the fallen and pay tribute to living soldiers and teach younger generations about the value of freedom.

Framed by lines of red, white and blue flags, the humbling importance of the day was not lost to Air Force junior ROTC Lt. Col. Kenneth Field, who said, “there is nice history here,” before thanking members of the tribe for the opportunity to honor their cherished soldiers.

Starting at Arlington National Cemetery earlier in the morning, similar ceremonies happened at over 1,500 locations around the nation throughout the day including four others in Southern Utah organized by the Color Country Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The event, themed this year as “Be Their Witness,” was the largest the area has ever seen with over 2,100 graves covered with holiday wreaths by hundreds of volunteers at Shivwits, Tonaquint, Santa Clara, Ivins and, for the first time ever, the historic downtown St. George Cemetery where 1,100 veterans are buried.

Glenn Rogers honors fallen heroes at Shivwits Band of Paiutes cemetery for “Wreaths Across America” ceremony, Dec. 15, 2018 | Photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

The reverence of the moment at the Shivwits cemetery was undeniable as a reserved but proud grandfather, Shivwits Band of Paiutes Tribe Council member Glenn Rogers introduced Princess Emma to sing a traditional song before rhythmically beating a drum to a warrior song of his own.

ROTC cadet Kenzie Boone, who is also a member of the tribe,  was the first to place a wreath at the monument along with others cadets honoring POWs and all the armed forces. The monument, an Eagle Scout project, lists the names of the tribe’s fallen soldiers, some buried at the cemetery, including the first man from Washington County to loose his life in the Vietnam War, Army veteran Crawford Snow.

Snow’s sister, Donnitta (Snow) Woughter, who was at the ceremony to be her brother’s “witness,” told St. George News the veterans of the tribe will never be forgotten.

“We don’t just come and bury them and forget them,”  Woughter said. “They’re with us in our memory every day of our lives.”

A procession had just followed her up the dirt hill to her brother’s grave, adorned with the helmet from his time in service, where she was able to place her wreath before other veterans in the cemetery had their names recited aloud with pride and received wreaths of their own.

Woughter recalled how her brother, whose picture she sees every day in her living room, was a good person and she always wonders what his life would be like. “Not a day goes by I don’t think about him.”

Just a few hours before, another brave American waited patiently as a large crowd began assembling beneath a giant American flag flowing in the wind above Veteran’s Memorial at Tonaquint Cemetery. For Gold Star father Jerome Gourley, it was his turn to stand witness for his fallen son.

Gregson Gourley tragically lost his life to a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006, leaving behind a wife and four children, but sitting next to display box full of service medals, a bronze star and purple heart, Jerome Gourley told St. George News, his son comes along with him to all of these events.

“Through the Wreaths Across America program, we are ensuring that the lives of our men and women in uniform are remembered, not their deaths. It is our responsibility as Americans, to be their witness and to share to stories of service and sacrifice with the next generation,” Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America said in a press release announcing the event.

“In many ways, Wreath Across America volunteers are already serving in this role to be witnesses for the local heroes in their own communities,” Worcester said. “Through their efforts, the veterans and veteran families are given the opportunity to tell their personal stories and share details about the character of our military.” 

A man honors fallen heroes at “Wreaths Across America” ceremony at Tonaquint Cemetery, St. George, Utah, Dec. 15, 2018 | Photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

The ceremony, opened by Tom Cover of the Utah Dixie Detachment 1270 Marine Corps, featured patriotic tunes from the Dixie High School marching band, a reciting of the pledge of allegiance by the crowd of hundreds and a powerful rendition of the National Anthem performed by the 12-year-old daughter of a St. George Police officer before introducing Gourley, the guest speaker of the day.

Gourley, a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Army and member of the American Legion, said he was proud to be representing his post No. 100 in Hurricane. He said as we pay tribute to those who have fallen defending our country and its principles, it is worthwhile to remember that each one is someone’s relative or friend and it helps to put a face to the ones we honor.

His son was 38 years old and a member of the 101st Airborne division on his second tour in Iraq when he died. He was a humble hero who, when asked by his mother why he wanted to serve simply and decisively said, “If not me, mom, who?”

Being able to speak about “Wreath’s Across America” at Saturday’s ceremony was important for Gourley because of the impact it the program has personally had on his life.

After their son’s remains were returned stateside for burial, Gourley and his wife selected Camp W. G. Williams Memorial Gardens in Riverton for his final resting place with other fallen heroes. One cold, windy winter’s day in December 2006, the couple returned to visit their son on his first Christmas alone, and they were in for a surprise.

“There stuck in the drifting snow on every single headstone was a beautiful memorial wreath honoring every single soldier,” Gourley said. “Personally, it was a real thrill to see a wreath on his headstone.”

Gourley said his daughter-in-law has remarried to a really great guy and his grandchildren are all doing well.

“Thanks to the DAR and the many volunteers who so generously give their time and efforts to place and retrieve each wreath, each Christmas season,” Gourley said.

Hundreds gather at Tonaquint Cemetery to honor fallen heroes at “Wreaths Across America” ceremony, St. George, Utah, Dec. 15, 2018 | Photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

Without the year-long effort of the Color Country Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the duty to honor Southern Utah veterans for “Wreaths Across America” would not be possible. It’s a mission Valerie King, regent for the Color Country Chapter, said will never go undone.

King told St. George News that even though she could finally take a break and enjoy a few weeks off for the holiday, soon after Jan. 1,  fundraising will have to begin again. She said there’s still so many people that don’t know about their program even thought it takes place all across the U.S. at the same time.

This year’s event was sponsored by dozens of private donations and corporate sponsors like Walmart, Wells Fargo and Nielson RV that provided all the wreath’s for the Shivwits ceremony. King said it will take her team of hard-working women every spare second to make it all happen again next Christmas.

While some may recognize the iconic photo at Arlington of wreath’s laying in the snow against rows and rows of white, marble headstones, King said, many do not know the program makes an impact on many families in Southern Utah during the holiday season.

“They know that, but they don’t know it’s here, too,” she said.

For more information on how to volunteer or become a sponsor for next year’s “Wreath Across America,” contact Valerie King at colorcountrychapter@gmail.com.

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Email: apinckney@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews | @andrewjpinckney

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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