18-wheeler arrives with thousands of wreaths to honor Southern Utah’s fallen heroes; ceremonies tomorrow

Unloading wreaths delivered at Tonaquint Cemetery for Wreaths Across America with Sexton Brad Rollins, Valerie King and cemetery staff, St. George, Utah, Dec. 12, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Staci Guerrero has spent the past 23 years behind the wheel of a big rig hauling every kind of freight a person can imagine —  and in all that time as a professional truck driver, she said Thursday’s load for Wreaths Across America was the best she’s ever delivered.

L: Staci Guerrero, a truck driver for Wreaths Across America with Color Country Chapter DAR Regent Valerie King, St. George, Utah, Dec. 12, 2019 | Photo courtesy of CCCDAR Facebook, St. George News

“This means something. This is an honor to do this,” Guerrero told St. George News. “This is my fun load. I’m having a great time.”

For over 25 years, Americans have come together on Wreaths Across America day to “remember our fallen U.S. veterans, honor those serve and teach the value of freedom.”

It began with the laying of a few extra wreaths in the older and often forgotten sections of Arlington National Ceremony in 1992 by Morrill Worcester, and has since spread to over 2,000 locations across the country and abroad.

Of more than 2 million wreaths to be delivered ahead of this week’s ceremony, Guerrero had 216 boxes ready to unload for St. George, allowing for over 2,000 veteran graves to be covered at Saturday ceremonies. The first ceremony is set to begin at 10 a.m. at Tonaquint Cemetery. 

Guerrero drives out of her home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, but said the company she works for, Central Oregon Trust Company, donates two trucks every year to deliver wreaths for the program. The driving spots are normally reserved for veterans, but she got lucky having the only rollup-covered flatbed nearby that would work for this unique cargo.

Guerrero said her best friend from Indiana was a marine for 10 years, and she felt blessed to be chosen for the duty. She told her boss before leaving, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, this is the coolest load I’ve ever done.”

The company also delivered the White House Christmas tree last year, which Guerrero was forced to miss. But that was OK with her, she said, because she felt this trip was more important.

This is for our veterans and their families. They’re the people that keep us safe. They’re the people that fight for our country. They’re the ones who, whether they’re in combat or behind the scenes, sign up,” Guerrero said. “They risk their lives.”

This will be the ninth year Southern Utah has participated in the program, once again led by the year-long efforts of the Color Country Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution and its current regent, Valerie King. Their first ceremony was held at Tonaquint Cemetery in 2010, and two years later, a second ceremony was added at the Shivwits Band of Paiutes Cemetery near Gunlock. Last year, St. George Cemetery and its growing list of 1,120 veterans was brought on to be honored.

Wreath placed on a grave of a veteran for national Wreaths Across America day in St. George, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

King has been hooked since the very first day, and, like many others, finds herself looking forward to coming back to volunteer every year. She told St. George News she’s surprised there are still so many people that don’t know what Wreaths Across America is about. She was excited and gripped by the emotion of the first ceremony she attended but said the most touching part was the wreath-laying and going to each grave.

It has been said that a soldier is never forgotten unless their name is never spoken again, and King said that is what the day is really all about, to remember their life and thank them for their service. The first year she joined, they had to leave around 30 veteran graves uncovered, and that destroyed her, she said.

“How could this happen,” King thought, and from that point on, they decided they wouldn’t take on another cemetery unless every grave was honored.

King said everyone is welcome to attend and participate in wreath-laying activities at the Tonaquint and St. George cemeteries. A number of local sponsors and organizations are participating in this year’s ceremony, including the master of ceremonies, Dixie High School’s Air Force JROTC commander and retired Lt. Col. Ken Field with his cadets, the American Legion, Knights of Columbus, Marine Corps League and for the first time, the Utah National Guard. This year’s  keynote speaker will be Korean War Veteran and American Legionnaire, Anton Kuhlmann.

More veteran graves will be covered than ever this year, with the addition of Leeds Cemetery and 10 locations around Washington County, including Enterprise City Cemetery, Santa Clara Cemetery, Springdale Cemetery, Ivins Cemetery, LaVerkin Cemetery, Rockville Cemetery, Toquerville Cemetery, Washington City Cemetery and a large inaugural ceremony at Hurricane’s Cemetery, thanks to the efforts of Kuhlmann’s family and the newly established nonprofit, the Hurricane Valley Support Foundation.

It began with a wish to honor his grandson, who is buried in Santa Clara Cemetery, an Iraq War master sergeant who served with the “Triple Deuce.” Now, it has turned into a personal mission for 89-year-old Kuhlmann, who started the foundation with the hope that he can complete one more mission in his life by ensuring that not a single veteran buried in Washington County will ever be forgotten again. 

Crew from city of St. George unloading boxes for Wreaths Across America in St. George, Utah, Dec. 12, 2019 | Photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

“Somebody has to do it,” Kuhlmann told St. George News.

Kuhlmann said he first learned about Wreaths Across America’s mission at a barbecue fundraiser for the Color Country Chapter. When he heard there were veterans in the area that couldn’t be honored, he knew had to find a way to make a difference. He thought, “that’s not fair,” and in the months since, he has garnered the skills of his extensive family and set plans in motion to support the program for years to come.

Last year, they sponsored wreaths to be laid in Ivins and Santa Clara Cemeteries, which was a moment Kuhlmann said he will never forget. While walking with his granddaughter to an old corner of the cemetery, he found a grave that caught his eye and told her he wanted her to take a look.

“I want you to understand what this means to your grandpa,” he told her. “He never got married … he never had a family … he never had anything that you have a chance of having.”

As Kuhlmann turned around to leave, he said his granddaughter stopped, walked back to the gravestone, and whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

His hope is that their experience will be repeated, and that by doing his small part to support Wreaths Across America, he can help the next generation understand the value of our American heroes.

“Every one of them has made this nation what it is. They were willing to give everything,” Kuhlmann said.

Kuhlmann said he will need assistance, but thinks with community support, it can be done. Those in the community who know of a veteran buried somewhere in the county that they feel should be honored next year can contact the Hurricane Valley Support Foundation by email at cathykbarnes661@gmail.com or visit their Facebook group here.

Governor Herbert recently signed a declaration designating Dec. 14 as Wreaths Across America Day throughout the state. In all, 27 locations in Utah will participate this year, with 3,200 graves being honored in Washington County alone.

At approximately 11 a.m., following the ceremony and wreath-laying at Tonaquint Cemetery, the St. George Police Department will lead a processional with the Patriot Guard Riders to the St. George Cemetery for its second annual wreath-laying event, and a private ceremony will begin at 1 p.m. at the Shivwits Band of Paiutes Cemetery.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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