By Gabrielle Nolan
Remember. Honor. Teach.
This is the mission of Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit based in Maine dedicated to remembering “the men and women who served our country, honor our military and their families, and teach our children about our freedom and those who protect it.”
And for one local veteran, this mission has become an opportunity to annually involve his Knights of Columbus assembly in a patriotic service.
Roland “Rollie” Wicker is a parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade and also a member of Father Gabriel Assembly 2162, which includes men from the Knights of Columbus councils at St. Francis of Assisi and St. Alphonsus in Crossville.
The Fourth Degree in the Knights of Columbus is the patriotic degree, and the assembly’s “main function is to really look at how we can do patriotic events through veterans,” Mr. Wicker said.
The Father Gabriel Assembly previously has marched in the Crossville Veterans Day Parade and has donated flags for the gravesite of Sgt. Alvin C. York at the state park that bears his name. It also has supported Bread of Life, a veterans home in Crossville that serves homeless and disadvantaged veterans.
Mr. Wicker served in the Marine Corps for three years, the majority of which he was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California.
“I spent three years with them and enjoyed it,” he said. “I mean sometimes it wasn’t so enjoyable, but when I look back it was a good thing.”
“I was looking for opportunities for our assembly to do something patriotic and also help out the assembly,” Mr. Wicker said. “Wreaths Across America came up, and I dug further into it, and I found that the closest cemetery for us to look at doing something was the old East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery; it’s right by the cathedral, right down the street.”
Every December, Wreaths Across America lays wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., a tradition that began in 1992.
Hand-crafted balsam wreaths with a red bow are shipped from Columbia Falls, Maine, across the country and abroad so that other organizations can honor veterans at cemeteries, monuments, and parks.
In November 2020, Mr. Wicker contacted Wreaths Across America and registered the assembly to collect wreath sponsorships.
The following month, 14 volunteers made the drive to the East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery in West Knoxville, located at 5901 Lyons View Pike across from Lakeshore Park.
“We had five Fourth Degree Knights participate in the wreath-laying with their family members or friends,” Mr. Wicker said. “It was kind of on short notice that this all came together, but we carpooled from Crossville.”
In addition to the Knights’ assembly, 22 other local organizations such as veterans associations, civic clubs, local colleges, and student JROTC groups volunteered to sponsor and lay wreaths.
The cemetery first had a ceremony with guest speakers and the playing of taps, a bugle call typically played at military funerals and memorial or flag ceremonies.
The wreaths are stationed throughout the cemetery, and volunteers go to their selected location.
“You get six to eight wreaths each time, and you get a row of headstones, and as you lay the wreath you read the name of the person that is on the headstone,” Mr. Wicker said. “I think we laid about 7,000 wreaths in about 45 minutes last year.”
“One of the things that drew me to it was also that for every wreath we get sponsorship for, we get $5 back, which we are putting in our seminarian fund to help seminarians out during the year,” he said. “Typically, at Christmastime we send them a check.”
“It came together rather quickly last year, but we still were able to sponsor 125 wreaths. And putting that together we got $625 back for the assembly’s seminarian fund, which was very nice to have because we enjoy giving our funds and helping out the seminarians,” he said.
This year on Dec. 18, National Wreaths Across America Day, Mr. Wicker and other volunteers and organizations across the country will participate in the laying of wreaths for veterans.
The ceremony at the old East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery will begin at noon. Parking is available across the street at Lakeshore Park.
According to the Wreaths Across America website, ceremonies are happening at more than 2,900 participating locations.
“It’s just remarkable how they do that. Some of the trucking is donated, others are paid for, you know, through donations, and it’s just kind of amazing how that all comes together,” Mr. Wicker said. “There’s going to be over 1.7 million wreaths laid on Dec. 18.”
While most of the graves Mr. Wicker adorns with wreaths are for individuals he has never met, there is one familiar name.
“We have a member of our assembly who passed away in 2010 and who is buried there at the old East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery: Arthur M. Krogman,” he said.
Mr. Krogman, a former parishioner of St. Alphonsus and member of Council 8152, was a Navy veteran who served in the Korean War.
“Arthur was a good man, a hard worker, was always available when you needed somebody to help out with a project, led some projects,” Mr. Wicker recalled. “We make sure we gather around and put a wreath on his grave.”
As of Nov. 22, the assembly had 383 wreath sponsorships out of their goal of 400.
Sponsorships for the assembly come from family and friends, as well as from assembly members asking for support at local events and their parish’s Masses. One wreath sponsorship costs $15.
“I hope that we can continue to do this year after year, and I hope more groups get involved,” he said. “As the new veterans cemetery in Knoxville (on East Gov. John Sevier Highway) grows, we can get people to take care of and handle that area also.”
Although the United States nationally celebrates Veterans Day in November and Memorial Day in May, the Wreaths Across America organization recognizes that our service members make sacrifices year-round:
“In many homes, there is an empty seat for one who is serving or one who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. There is no better time to express our appreciation than during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. We hope you will join us… to show our veterans and their families that we will not forget. We will never forget.”
For more information or to donate to the Father Gabriel Assembly’s sponsorships, please visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org.