Hundreds gather in Aiken County to memorialize veterans
GRANITEVILLE — Hundreds of veterans, active-duty servicemen, Junior ROTC participants and other neighbors were part of a gathering Saturday afternoon at Sunset Memorial Gardens, for Aiken County’s largest Wreaths Across America program.
The annual event, part of a nationwide observance held in December, included 1,000 memorial wreaths, all placed on veterans’ graves, through an effort largely led by Aiken resident Tony Venetz, an Air Force veteran who served in the 1960s.
Similar events took place at several other cemeteries around the county, almost doubling the amount of wreaths distributed, and Venetz noted that he, over the years, always gets an appreciative response from at least one participant.
“It goes back to that cliche – ‘priceless,’” he said, referring to a warm response from someone taking part in Wreaths Across America. “It really is. It’s a close family, but we’d like to expand that family.”
Cadets from the Naval Junior ROTC programs at Midland Valley, South Aiken and Aiken high schools were among the participants, as were dozens of soldiers and other Fort Gordon representatives. The Patriot Riders (motorcyclist) group provided logistical support, local vocalist Beth Spangler presented the national anthem and a home-school band conducted by Barb Rollins also helped set the event to music, with a bagpiper also as part of the mix. Local members of Children of the American Revolution were on board as well, leading the Pledge of Allegiance.
“My goal in all of this is to cover as many veterans’ graves as possible. I believe in the program. I think it does good things,” Venetz said, noting that most of the spectators at the Graniteville event seemed to have a direct family connection to the military.
″‘Thank you’ to those who came, and for those who didn’t, please come next year. Basically, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
Venetz, who credited everyone in the program with “an outstanding job,” estimated that somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 veterans’ graves in Aiken County were not touched by Saturday’s effort.
The featured speaker was Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., South Carolina’s adjutant general. “South Carolina has paid the price for this nation, ever since its origin. The people lying in this cemetery and throughout this state – veterans – they have paid the price for this great state and this great community to exist, and for us to enjoy our freedoms. Thank you for continuing to tell that story,” he said, acknowledging the various generations among his listeners.
Livingston also expressed thanks, after the event, for those who organized and attended. “I’ve had the opportunity to be part of Wreaths Across America in many different venues, over in Columbia and in the national cemeteries and things like that, but nobody does it like Aiken. This is the community coming out and remembering their own, and just an incredible job by Tony and the whole community,” he said.
Venetz said such events provide a perfect chance to put the phrase “thank you for your service” into action. ”“If there’s an opportunity like this, or a golf tournament or a parade, most people will choose the latter,” he added.
A smaller gathering took place in Aiken, at Bethany Cemetery, where dozens of Confederate soldiers are buried. The assembly included several re-enactors, including men in Confederate uniforms and women in widow’s garb from the same period.
Prominent figures at that event included Aiken resident Blake Moore, who holds leadership posts in the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “This is the first time, as far as anybody knows, that they’ve ever had a service of Wreaths Across America to honor Confederate veterans,” he said.
Moore noted that efforts have been largely by Venetz, to enlist as many cemeteries as possible, and also pointed out that support came from Robbie Shellhouse, owner of Bethany Cemetery, agreed to have Bethany on board and also donated money for wreaths.
“I think it went well. The best thing is, the Lord held off with the rain. It was a 100-percent chance of rain today, so I’m glad it didn’t rain,” Moore added, estimating attendance at 40. Venetz said Bethany received 84 wreaths, with 53 of them being for Confederates.
James Holland, a retired Army officer and one of South Carolina’s former top American Legion leaders, was the featured speaker at a gathering at Pine Lawn Memorial Gardens, with the sponsorship of Legion Post 212, according to the event’s coordinator Raymond Wright. He estimated attendance at 35.
“We expected more, but I guess the rain scared a lot of people away,” he added, noting that his group was able to tend to the grave of each of the 130 veterans interred there. Among the most prominent graves is that of Capt. Berry, who fought for the Union and again decades later served in the Spanish-American War, “in the early days,” as Wright recalled.
Wright also reached across more generations and touched on the National Guard’s representation at Pine Lawn. “We had a staff sergeant from the Army that was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, in combat. His name was Staff Sgt. Willie Harley Jr.,” he said, noting that Harley was based in Graniteville, with the 122nd Engineering Battalion.
One of the two assemblies in North Augusta was shortened due to a medical emergency involving one of the event’s top organizers while at Pineview Memorial Gardens.
Central concepts in Wreaths Across America’s activities are “remember, honor and teach.” Details on the national nonprofit organization, which has its roots in the early 1990s in Maine, are at wreathsacrossamerica.org.