A sailor climbed the stairs, gravestones flanking his left side.
He carried a large wreath with a red bow. At the top of the stairs, he passed a JROTC cadet clad in a blue uniform, complemented by white gloves, with a sword in his right hand. The sailor, Ronald Wechter, placed the wreath beside two others, stepped back, saluted.
Later, three volleys would be fired into the air and the lonely song of Taps would ring through the cold December air. Silence followed after as those gathered remembered the fallen.
It was all a part of the Wreaths Across America event held Saturday at the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery. Earlier this week, cadets in the JROTC programs at Greene County and Greeneville schools helped place wreaths on 1,900 graves at the cemetery.
For Charles McLain, commander of the Greene County Honor Guard, it was encouraging to see young people at the ceremony.
“It gives them a reminder of those people who have sacrificed for our country for their freedoms,” he said. “Eventually, it will be their turn.”
Wreaths Across America was formed as an extension of the Arlington Wreath Project. That program was started in 1992 by Morrill Worcester with the donation and laying of 5,000 Christmas wreaths in Arlington National Cemetery.
Volunteers placed wreaths on individual veterans’ graves in more than 1,200 locations throughout the U.S., with ceremonies taking place at sea and at each of the national cemeteries on foreign soil, according to the Wreaths Across America website.
During the event Saturday, there was a ceremonial wreath laying where seven wreaths were taken to a small platform in the cemetery. Each branch of the military and those soldiers who were prisoners of war or missing in action were honored with a wreath.
Carrying the wreath for the U.S. Army was Sgt. 1st Class Larry Davis. Master Sgt. Jerry Hopson carried the wreath for the U.S. Marine Corps. RM-2 Ronald Wechter carried the wreath for the U.S. Navy while Air Force JROTC Cadet Major Caleb Brady carried the wreath for the U.S. Air Force.
Gerald Ewen, PO-2, carried the wreath for the U.S. Coast Guard. JROTC Cadet Capt. Michael Pompeo carried a wreath for the U.S. Merchant Marines while JROTC Cadet Major carried the wreath for POW/MIA soldiers.
Local Boy Scouts held the flags for every state.
Lt. Col. Neal Kerney from the Tennessee National Guard was the keynote speaker and told the tale of the Battle of the Bulge, one of the deadliest battles in the European Theatre of Operations during World War II.
The beginning of the battle, which lasted until Jan. 25, 1945, marked its 73rd anniversary on Dec. 16. Kerney said the Tennessee National Guard played a significant and heroic role in that battle.
The United States would lose 19,000 soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge.
Kerney encouraged the young people present at the ceremony to adopt someone buried at the cemetery and visit them.
“Those who have been buried here for many years may have not had anyone visit them or thank them for a long, long time,” he said. “Let’s make today a beginning and not a one-time event.”