Making Memories & Keeping Old Ones Alive
By Bridgette Waldau and Brad Phares
Photos courtesy of Brad Phares
National Wreaths Across America Day is a tribute to all veterans, from the Revolutionary War to present- day conflicts and is celebrated annually on the third Saturday of each December. Inspired by one man’s appreciation of our great nation and those who have fought to protect our freedoms, Wreaths Across America was founded in 2007 with its fundamental mission being to “Remember, Honor, and Teach” adults and children an appreciation for our country and our veterans. While educational outreach activities and fundraising events occur throughout the year, the primary fulfillment of this mission is achieved through coordinated wreath laying ceremonies at more than 1,400 locations in the US and abroad, including the revered Arlington National Cemetery.
Locally here in Florida’s heartland, Okeechobee resident Brad Phares serves as a Location Coordinator for Wreaths Across America. When asked how he became involved with the program, Brad said, “The wreath laying ceremony is a somber and reverent experience that leaves an indelible impression on your heart. I don’t think I’m guilty of using an over-generalization by saying that. I think it’s a fair assessment of how the vast majority of people who attend a wreath laying ceremony feel.” He attended his first ceremony in 2015 at the Forest Hills Memorial Park in Palm City. “Our close family friends Mark and Karen Zook lost their son, Marine corporal Ian Zook, to an improvised explosive device while serving in Iraq in 2004, and as a Gold Star Family they were inspired to get involved with Wreaths Across America, starting the program there.” Brad was so moved that he wrote a poem about his experience. “Having written a fair amount of cowboy poetry over the years, I’ve come to learn that some poems seem to write themselves, and this was definitely one of those times.” After sharing the poem with the Zooks, they invited him to their 2016 event to share it as part of the ceremony.
“Forest Hills had around 300 extra wreaths that year and donated them to be brought to Evergreen Cemetery in Okeechobee. We covered as many gravestones as we could and set up a memorial display in Veterans Park downtown so that we could begin our own tradition of remembering, honoring, and teaching.” Brad’s father Bill, who had served as a Specialist 5 (Crew Chief/Door Gunner) with the Army’s 282nd Assault Helicopter Company during the Vietnam War, had passed away in March 2016, further bolstering Brad’s decision to become more involved with the program.
Together with his wife Sam and Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office Community Liaison/Public Information Officer Jack Nash, Brad coordinated the first formal Wreaths Across America event held at Okeechobee’s Evergreen Cemetery in 2017. According to Brad, “With myself serving as the captain for our department’s volunteer Mounted Posse and Jack’s enthusiastic support as a full-time employee, it was a natural fit for the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office to take a very active role in our local program. Sheriff Noel Stephen never falters in providing us with needed resources and logistics. He’s a huge advocate for our veteran community and has been a tremendous blessing to us in fulfilling our WAA mission here locally.”
Traditionally, the national model has been for each cemetery to be an individual location, but as a small community with three cemeteries scattered across a large county, Okeechobee’s volunteers have deviated from that pattern by seeking to raise funds enough to meet the needs for all three cemeteries: Evergreen, Ft. Drum, and Basinger. “Technically speaking, each location should be addressed separately, but we don’t want to confuse people and give the impression of having opposing fundraisers,” Brad explains. With approximately 900-1,000 veterans interred at Evergreen, plus the needs of the other two locations, the group seeks to raise funds sufficient to place wreaths on roughly 1,300 gravestones.
While the national organization provides an outline for the annual event to maintain a level of uniformity at the ceremonies, they also allow some flexibility for communities to represent their individual character. In Okeechobee, that has entailed the inclusion of local civic groups, the local Eagle Riders motorcycle club, mounted Sheriff’s Posse officers, and various youth groups participating as a community service project.
As part of the national organization’s protocol, eight ceremonial wreaths are present at each ceremony, representing the eight branches of the United States Uniformed Services – Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force, Space Force, Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (MIA/POW), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (Merchant Marines). For Okeechobee’s ceremony, and as a way of showing honor and respect for their past service, local veterans are chosen to place the ceremonial wreath representing their branch of the military. Following the placement of the ceremonial wreaths, the gathered crowd will hear from a guest speaker before being invited to help place the wreaths for the veterans throughout the cemetery.
Individual wreaths cost $15 or three for $30. In the event there are additional funds remaining after the wreaths are purchased and the local goal is met, the location can elect to carry the funds over to the following year’s event or donate extra wreaths to other locations like Arlington National Cemetery or one determined by the national organization. For Okeechobee, some years they carry the funds over, but in other years such as 2021, Brad and his family transported roughly 300 wreaths to veteran gravesites at Hillcrest Memorial Gardens in north Saint Lucie County.
When asked about the growth of the local effort, Brad noted, “We’ve come quite a long way in five years of holding these ceremonies. We knew we’d have great support from the people and businesses in our community who are always so generous, but it’s been very inspiring to watch everything about this effort evolve. The only year we didn’t hold official ceremonies was during the peak of COVID in 2020 out of concern for our veterans, many of whom fell into that grouping of highly at-risk persons. The local businesses carried the load for us in those first few years, but now it’s reached a point where individuals are contributing the majority, and especially those individuals affiliated with civic associations like the VFW, American Legion, The Fraternal Order of Eagles, DAR, SAR, and many more.” And just as the group from Forest Hills Cemetery helped bring Wreaths Across America to Okeechobee County, Okeechobee’s fundraising group helped germinate a WAA location in Glades County.
Okeechobee resident and WAA supporter Carol Shipman poured her heart and soul into sitting outside of Publix on numerous occasions collecting donations for Okeechobee’s WAA fundraising effort. Two members of VFW Post 10539, Joan Rhoden and Naomi “Timmie” Oldiges, were game changers when they stepped forward to take on a more active role with the local fundraising effort right as they were most needed. They helped organize several events such as a poker run in conjunction with the Glades County WAA group and a BBQ fundraiser with Ding-a-Ling Deli Restaurant.
“Our local program really took off and blossomed right as personal responsibilities and obligations for both me and Jack began to escalate,” says Brad. “We were feeling the strain of meeting all our goals and organizing the event, and it’s a tremendous amount of pressure because when it comes to honoring and supporting our veterans, failure really isn’t an option. Timmie and Joan approached us to help with the fundraising side of things with perfect timing. They had the biggest resource available that Jack and I did not—ample free time to focus solely on fundraising—and they’ve done a superb job at it. Now, Jack and I focus on logistics, they focus on fundraising, and we all meet the mission goal as a team.”
This year’s ceremony, with a theme of “Find A Way To Serve,” will be held on Saturday, December 17th at noon by the flagpole at Evergreen Cemetery. Members of the public are invited to attend and be a part of this poignant experience.
For more information on how you can donate or otherwise assist, please contact Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.