story and photos by Ruby Dean
A cloudy, cool morning did not stop family members and the public from coming out to the Fort Smith National Cemetery on Saturday (Dec. 8) to place 13,876 wreaths on grave sites of fallen veterans.
Family members began distributing wreaths at 8:30 this morning with the public joining in at 9:30. The three-day event began on Friday with a wreath assembly workshop at the Fort Smith Convention Center.
This makes the fourth year for the Christmas Honors program at the Fort Smith National Cemetery and it has grown every year. All the graves were decorated in 6 minutes and 39 seconds. This is the fastest time said Philip Merry, Christmas Honors chairman. Merry also stated "this is a tribute they (veterans) so rightfully deserve."
A group of students from St. Boniface and Christ the King Catholic School sang Christmas songs to the crowd as the volunteers drank hot chocolate and coffee that were provided.
The crowd dispersed at 10:30 a.m. and reconvened at 11 a.m. for the ceremony. Don Bailey played the National Anthem on the saxophone as the A-10 jets with the Fort Smith-based 188th Fighter Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard conducted a flyover. However, due to the early morning fog, the jets were hard to see. Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders welcomed the crowd and the colors were presented.
The guest speaker for the ceremony was Clint Hill, author of "Mrs. Kennedy and Me." Hill was a Secret Service agent, and his time in the service included being assigned to First Lady Jackie Kennedy. He was with the Kennedy’s in Dallas when President John Kennedy was assassinated. Hill addressed the crowd and talked about his time with Mrs. Kennedy and the importance of remembering our veterans.
Cookie Collyar, wife of James Collyar, has decorated her husband's grave every year since the Christmas Honors Program began. She was teary eyed as she talked about her husband and what a great event this is and what it meant to family members of veterans. Her husband died at the age of 62 from a very aggressive brain tumor. He showed no symptoms of the tumor and by the time it was found, the tumor was golf-sized. He lived 32 days after his diagnosis.
A wreath candlelight vigil is scheduled for 5:30 pm on Monday (Dec. 10) at the Fort Smith National Cemetery as part of the Christmas Honors program. The wreaths will remain up for public viewing through Jan. 5.