My wife and I volunteered again this year for Wreaths Across America, which was held Saturday at national cemeteries all across the country. This year over 700,000 wreaths were laid at the headstones of veterans who served this nation with honor. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. Here in Sarasota, at the Sarasota National Cemetery, over 9,300 wreaths were placed by thousands of volunteers. 

This was our second year volunteering for this event. There were many more people this year; I estimate upwards of 3,000 people showed up to pay their respects and to lay wreaths at the grave sites. Sarasota National Cemetery, the “Arlington of the South”, is a wonderful facility. The fact that over 9,000 vets are interred there should tell you how popular it is. It has only been in existence for 7 years. As impressive a place as it is, and as impressive as it was to see so many people participate in such a terrific event, I could not help but be most impressed by what I did not see. There was something different about this event, and a few things that have become all too commonplace were notably absent during the ceremony held in Patriot Plaza before the wreath laying began.

They were, in no particular order, cell phones, unruly children and hats on heads.

During the ceremony, which featured bagpipes, marching bands, a ceremonial wreath laying for each branch of the military, and several short speeches, their were virtually no phones present. The ubiquitous video recording we often see at public events simply was not occurring. I did see the occasional phone, and there were a few pictures snapped of the event (including my own for this blog), but the now commonplace sight of dazed faces watching the world through a 4 inch screen simply did not occur.

There were many children at this event. Participation by the Civil Air Patrol, the Sarasota Military Academy and the Young Marines meant that hundreds of young people were on hand to observe and assist. Additionally, there were many, many families with young children in tow. Quite simply put, there were no unruly brats. No one climbing where they did not belong. No one being allowed to “express themselves” by being a pain in the ass to everyone around them. These kids were well behaved, and seemed to understand the gravity of the day. This was most noticeable during a 45 second “moment of silence” during the opening ceremony. It was actual silence; of the “hear a pin drop” variety. It was almost eery, given all of the people attending that day.

And finally, the decorum showed during the presentation of colors and the national anthem was a refreshing change from what we often see today. Most people know that there are a few standards we are supposed to follow when Old Glory is being presented and the anthem is being played. Everyone who is able to should stand. Civilians should remove their hats, and place their hand over their heart. Veterans may leave a hat in place, but salute the flag. Simple things to do, yet one visit today to a major sporting event will tell you much of the population is ignorant of these signs of respect. That was not the case at Wreaths Across America.

As the colors were being presented, hats quickly disappeared from graying domes around the amphitheater. Salutes from the many vets present were smart, and hands across beating hearts completed the scene well. This was a crowd that respected the flag and the nation it stands for. It was a group worthy of attendance in the aptly named Patriots Plaza. 

I find the laying of the wreaths somewhat cathartic. It is a restorative affair, one that allows you to put many things into perspective. A woman sitting next to me at the service had two sons who served in the Marines. Both were injured in Afghanistan – one left with a TBI. We made room on our bench for an elderly man and his wife who clearly needed a place to sit. He was a diminutive and frail man with an oxygen generator. His hat indicated he was a former Marine; a man who proudly served his nation and was paying respects to his departed comrades. I found myself wondering what his story was. He was of the age where he could have been a WWII or Korean War era veteran. What type of service had he seen? What type of risks had this man taken? 

He smiled and shook my hand when I offered him my seat  – such a small price for a potential life of valor and commitment. 

Ultimately, it was the things I did not see this past Saturday that made the greatest impact on me. I did not see people distracted from an important message by modern electronics. I did not see oblivious parents who do not bother to pass on the message of sacrifice and respect to their children. I did not see people indifferent to a nations past, and to the collective sacrifice of others that made it what it is today. And although I could not see into an individuals past, I instinctually knew they were part of something much greater than their individual selves. 

People of a collective mind were drawn together at this simple event. They are people who care enough to understand and show appreciation for what we have. Visiting any national cemetery can be a very impressive experience. The things you see there, the care and symmetry in the placement of the graves, are impressive. Yet sometimes it is the things you cannot directly view that mean the most.

We just need to open our eyes to the things we can't see.

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