By IAN TULLY
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Kathy Baumgarten is a veteran who knows what it’s like to be away at Christmastime.
When she was stationed overseas in Kuwait during the Iraq invasion, she hoped that people at home missed her as much as she missed them.
But the true heartbreak, she said, is not the people who are away, but the people who are forever gone.
As president of the Lake Champlain Chapter NY1 chapter of the Military Retirees’ Association, Baumgarten helped to bring Wreaths Across America to the North Country last year. Donors purchased wreaths that volunteers placed at the graves of military veterans in the Old Post Cemetery, located on the old side of the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
A nonprofit group, Wreaths Across America’s purpose is to decorate the graves of fallen service members around the country for the holidays.
The program began as an effort to adorn each headstone in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and has snowballed to include more than 600 locations with 150,000-plus volunteers.
For $15, anyone can sponsor a wreath to be laid on one of the Old Post Cemetery’s 299 veterans’ graves.
Sponsors need no connection to a veteran interred there, and they do not have to attend the Dec. 15 ceremony for their wreath to be placed.
“We decorate our homes with these big light displays, but we don’t think about these little graves, whose owners’ families don’t decorate them, maybe don’t even know where they are,” she said.
NOT ENOUGH WREATHS
The Old Post Cemetery is final resting place for 136 unknown soldiers, 163 named veterans and many family members.
Among those interred there is Specialist First Class Thomas Kelly, a veteran of the Spanish American War and Medal of Honor recipient.
The wreaths, made in Maine, will be brought to Plattsburgh on Friday, Dec. 14. At noon the next day, anyone willing to volunteer can lay them beside the grave markers and headstones of the veterans of many different wars.
Baumgarten said laying a wreath is an intimate reminder that each grave represents someone who was a living, breathing person who answered his or her country’s call.
Last year, there were not enough wreaths to go around at the Plattsburgh cemetery. And Baumgarten fears there will not be enough this year either. She hopes local businesses will step up and make donations to what she said is a worthy cause.
Local chapters of the Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have made contributions, but unless more people donate, some graves will go unadorned, she said.
Any surplus wreaths purchased will carry over to next year.
MORE THAN MILES
Baumgarten said that in a region as rich in military history as the North Country, there is no reason for a veteran’s service to go uncelebrated. She estimated that 50 volunteers showed up last year and hopes there will be even more this time.
Last year, each volunteer was able to lay two or three wreaths. They sang “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and she said it was touching to hear.
“I am not the only one who has had a loved one away at Christmastime, and these people won’t ever be back with their families,” she said. “It’s more than miles that keep them apart.”
Baumgarten will lay a wreath of her own beside a brick in Veterans Memorial Park on the U.S. Oval devoted to her father, Thomas Dietrich, who served in WWII.
“When you walk around, look at the graves and say their names,” she said. “They are not invisible people — they are individuals.”
TO BUY A WREATH
The deadline is Monday, Nov. 26, to purchase a wreath for this year's Wreaths Across America event planned for Plattsburgh.
To order, go to wreathsacrossamerica.org and select the Old Post Cemetery as donation site, using the code NYOPCP and Sponsor Group code NYAMRA01.
Order forms are also available at the Clinton County Veterans' Service Agency in Suite 106 of the Clinton County Government Center on Margaret Street in Plattsburgh. Wreaths are $15 each.
Reach Kathy Baumgarten at 563-9479 for more information. Find details on the local effort on Facebook: http://tinyurl.com/bvjvnus
Before the noon laying of the wreaths on Dec. 15, the group hopes to bestow the same honor on at the graves of two other Plattsburgh Medal of Honor winners, Francis B. Hall in Riverside Cemetery and John H. Moffitt in Mt. Carmel Cemetery.
A reception with light refreshments will follow the event at the Battle of Plattsburgh Museum. Dr. Timothy Abel and Keith Herkalo will present a lecture on Pike's Cantonment at that time.
The wreaths will remain until after New Year's Day, when volunteers will collect them for disposal.