Glenn Bowman, a U.S. Navy veteran, lays the wreath representing the U.S. Merchant Marine on Saturday at the Veteran’s Memorial in West Gardiner as part of the local observance of Wreaths Across America. Jessica Lowell/Kennebec Journal

WEST GARDINER — In the back of the West Gardiner fire hall, Phyllis Phillips was ready to brave the cold Saturday to lay a wreath at the snow-covered grave of veteran.

The Augusta woman traveled to West Gardiner with her friend, Christine Polley, because she felt strongly “about all this.”

Every year, in Maine and elsewhere, volunteers step up in the local observance of Wreaths Across America to honor the men and women who have served in the military since the very founding of the United States of America.

It mirrors the laying of wreaths that begin their journey from the Washington County town of Columbia Falls, where the Wreaths Across America organization is located, and are transported via convoy to Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, D.C.

A year ago, Phillips took the trip from Columbia Falls to Arlington, Virginia, to take part in that ceremony. This year that wasn’t possible, so when a friend told her about the observance in West Gardiner and she decided to come. It was the first time she attended a local ceremony.

“I think it’s wonderful. It’s a great job, very nicely done,” Phillips said.

Just a few minutes before, the two women had joined about three dozen people in the frigid cold outside the fire hall at the town’s Veteran’s Memorial to watch as nine volunteers, mostly veterans, lay wreaths in turn to honor each of the service branches, one for the country and one designated for POW/MIAs.

Christine Polley, left, and Phyllis Phillips laid two wreaths each Saturday at a cemetery in West Gardiner as part of Wreaths Across America. Jessica Lowell/Kennebec Journal

In her comments, Deb Couture, a U.S. Navy veteran and an event organizer, noted that the town’s memorial contains the names of many veterans, some of whom attended Saturday’s ceremony.

Couture read the words of Wreaths Across America founder Morrill Worcester describing the symbolism contained in the 10 balsam bouquets that make up each wreath. They include the veteran’s faith in God; the veterans’ love for one another: attributes like character, honesty and integrity; veterans’ ambitions and aspirations, and hopes and dreams; their optimism for their fellow Americans and for the country; and their concerns for the future and future generations.

“It is said that every person dies twice,” she said. “The first time is when they take their last breath. They die again when we forget their name.”

Volunteers are encouraged to say the veteran’s name as they place the wreath, Couture said, and to give thanks for the veteran’s service and spend a moment to reflect on that person’s life.

Phillips and Polley were expecting to lay two wreaths each at one of the town’s seven cemeteries.

“I told them we’re not 20,” Phillips said. “We’re not good out in the woods, so if you have something closer to the edges…”

Those four wreaths were among the 1.7 million wreaths that Wreaths Across America announced were placed nationally at veterans’ headstones in more than 2,500 participating locations.

Couture said this is the fourth year West Gardiner has done the event, and this is the sponsors have donated enough for wreaths for each of the 193 veterans buried in town.

Because Couture filed paperwork to create a local nonprofit organization, the sponsors’ donations were leveraged by a match from the national organization. For every two wreaths purchased a third was donated. So far, enough has been donated to pay for about half the wreaths that will be needed next year. Couture said the national organization announced that starting Saturday through mid-January it will match any donations for wreaths for next year’s event.

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