Remember … Honor … Teach — WAA’s Mission More than Wreaths

WAA Driver Ambassador Robert Easley assists Vietnam veteran Al Gutierrez with adding Gutierrez’s name to the Vietnam Veterans appreciation wall. (Photo by Stephanie Irvine)
WAA Driver Ambassador Robert Easley assists Vietnam veteran Al Gutierrez with adding Gutierrez’s name to the Vietnam Veterans appreciation wall. (Photo by Stephanie Irvine)

By Stephanie Irvine

The Wreaths Across America’s Mobile Education Exhibit traveled to Stone City VFW over the July 6-7 weekend, giving visitors the opportunity to learn about the organization and how it honors veterans.

Described as a unique “museum on wheels,” the 48-foot Mobile Education Exhibit is an impressive trailer, complete with a Vietnam veteran-welcoming lobby and a small theater. In the air-conditioned theater, visitors watch an eight-minute video and learn about the history of Wreaths Across America, its purpose, how it got started, and why it matters.

“I’m so appreciative that these guys could come out because they don’t get to come to the area very often,” explained Debbie Bennett, who coordinates the Wreaths Across America wreath-laying event at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery each December. Notable volunteers include the Will County Farm Bureau and its Women for Family Farms Committee.

“So, we’re really happy that they did, and we’re thankful that Stone City VFW was able to host this for the area,” Bennett said, adding that she was impressed by the operation.

“It’s a big honor to host this event,” said Kevin Pomykala, Stone City VFW Post Commander. He said he learned Wreaths Across America started with one farmer; now it’s worldwide.

The Mobile Education Exhibit is operated by two teams who travel the country. Because of its popularity, there is a waitlist of up to two years.

This event was led by driver ambassadors Rich Schneider, Johnny Chestnut and Robert Easley. The three talked with visitors in the lobby area while the video played in the theater of the trailer.

“I think this is a really good turnout for a small area,” Easley said of the attendance, noting it was favorable, especially on a holiday weekend when many people travel.

Easley has a deep connection to the military, with several friends and family members who served. He had hoped to join, but life took him another route. He found his purpose in volunteering with Wreaths Across America beginning in 2020, leading to his ambassador position a little over a year ago.

“This is really a terrific representation of the program,” visitor and Army veteran Lisa McGlasson said.

McGlasson decided to visit the exhibit after learning on Facebook it would be at Stone City. She was one of the approximately 125-150 mobile education exhibit visitors over the weekend.

“They do a really nice job with the videos of explaining why it’s important, explaining what it means, and that it’s not just a wreath. It’s really honoring those who served, honoring those who lost their lives in service or beyond service,” McGlasson said.

Wreaths Across America’s mission is to “Remember the Fallen; Honor Those Who Serve; and Teach Our Children the Value of Freedom, but also to bridge the gap between active duty service members, veterans and civilians.”

The mobile education exhibit aims to capture all three parts of the mission, but it specifically focuses on the teaching pillar.

Additionally, a special “Welcome Home” Vietnam veteran tribute wall is framed inside the trailer, and Vietnam veterans are asked to sign their names to be honored by other visitors. Wreaths Across America has this wall in the Mobile Education Exhibit to celebrate the Vietnam veterans who were treated so poorly upon their return from war.

Local Vietnam Veteran Al Gutierrez visited the trailer after his nephew told him about the event. Gutierrez’s name now graces the board and is among many other Vietnam veterans whose names will be honored as the exhibit travels the country.

After signing the tribute wall, Vietnam veterans are given special gifts, a small gesture of appreciation for their service.

“It was real nice. It’s a good representation of what they’ve got going here,“ Desert Storm Marine Corps veteran Johnny Gunus said after viewing the informational video.

“If you have any interest in getting involved with Wreaths Across America, go to our website, wreathsacrossamerica.org, and if you want the Mobile Education Exhibit to come out to you, you can request a visit on the same website,” Easley said.

Wreaths Across America accepts donations and wreath sponsorships year-round. You can sponsor a veteran’s wreath anytime for $17 at www.wreathsacrossamerica.org.

Each sponsorship goes toward a live balsam wreath that will be placed on the headstone of an American hero at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery to honor all veterans laid to rest at noon on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2024, as part of National Wreaths Across America Day.

Stephanie Irvine is a freelance reporter. Photos by Stephanie Irvine

WAA Driver Ambassador Robert Easley (far right) presents Stone City VFW Post Commander Kevin Pomykala (center) and local Wreaths Across America coordinator Debbie Bennett (left) with a certificate of appreciation.

A view inside the mobile education exhibit explains the history of Wreaths Across America and its mission.

Storyboards in the lobby allow visitors to learn while they wait for the video to begin.

The Wreaths Across America mobile education exhibit was parked outside Stone City VFW July 6-7.

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