Seven biodegradable wreaths representing the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines and Prisoners of War/ Missing in Action were placed one by one in the Gulf roughly three miles off Fort Myers Beach last Saturday.
The touching annual tribute during the holiday season was part of a military ceremony by local representatives of Wreaths Across America to honor U.S. veterans buried and lost at sea. The local event began at the Veterans Memorial Bridge on the Caloosahatchee and ended in the Gulf.
The Southwest Florida ceremony -one of 800 different ceremonies across the nation that happened simultaneously at noon that day- is the first floating location designated in the nation by Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit organization founded to expand the annual wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Cape Coral Councilman Chris Chulakes-Leetz, an Air Force veteran, places a biodegradable wreath in the Gulf as part of the Wreaths Across America tribute Saturday.
Captain Pat McCarn and wife, Nancy, of Rainbow Memorials At Sea have volunteered since 2009 to conduct the ceremony named Operation: Tribute at Sea in the Gulf of Mexico. Pat introduced six guest speakers, including honorary Wreaths Across America Chaplain Col. Larry Ager, who conducted the invocation and benediction.
"The wreaths before you represent our commitment as a united America to remember our fallen," he said during the benediction. "We also want these personal remembrance wreaths to symbolize our honor to those who have served and are serving currently in our Armed Forces of this great nation. To our children, we want you to understand that the freedoms you enjoy today have not been free. They have come with a cost that someday you may be asked to pay yourself."
The military ceremony also featured a presentation of colors, Honor Guard, bagpipers, drummers, a 21-gun salute and "Taps" performed by a bugler during the wreath-laying service to honor veterans' graves.
"We gather here on this special occasion to remember all of those who have given their lives on the oceans, seas and canals of this world," said USCG Auxiliary Commodore Allen Brown. "Those who we honor this day have over the years given their lives to this land and water we now enjoy."
More than one million wreaths have been laid in land and water over the past years, including more than 750,000 wreaths in Arlington National Ceremony on Saturday alone.
Governmental dignitaries such as Cape Coral Mayor John Sullivan, Fort Myers Beach Mayor Bob Raymond and Manager Terry Stewart, who sang the "National Anthem," as well as elected officials from Fort Myers and Sanibel, were honored to speak at the ceremony. Lee County Sheriff's Office conducted a fly-over during the event.
"It's my privilege and honor to represent Fort Myers Beach in thanking all of our veterans who have given everything they have to help us get to where we are today," said Raymond. "This is a great tribute to our veterans."
Roughly 50 boats, including several service boats, attended the ceremony in the Gulf. Among them were police and fire marine divisions, US Coast Guard, USCG Auxiliary, SeaTow, TowBoat US and several boat clubs.
Patriot Guard Riders, Cape Coral Police and Fire Department officials escorted the wreaths to the Cape Coral Yacht Club for a presentation ceremony before the wreaths were transported to their final destination in the Gulf.
US Coast Guard Auxiliary member Bob Bergen, an Army veteran, and Cape Coral Councilman Chris Chulakes-Leetz, an Air Force veteran, shared the placing of the wreaths in the water.
The wreath tribute has been going on for more than 20 years across the nation. The tradition was initiated by Worcester Wreath Company from Harrington, Maine when the company donated and placed wreaths on the headstones of our Nation's fallen heroes at Arlington National Cemetery.
This year, more than 400,000 wreaths were sponsored and placed in all 50 states and at 24 national cemeteries on foreign soil.
The mission of the Wreaths Across America is to Remember, Honor, and Teach. Remember the fallen, honor those who serve including their families who sacrifice, and teach our children the cost of the freedoms we enjoy each day.
"Wreaths Across America hope that one day every veteran's resting place will be adorned with a holiday wreath," said Ager. "As a nation standing together we can defeat terrorism, hatred and injustice. Thanks to our veterans, we will have the freedom to do that."