SPRINGFIELD, MO.– I look across the cemetery and as far as I can see there are holiday wreaths, each with a red ribbon that contrasts with the sea of white headstones.
All 13,000 gravesites at the Springfield National Cemetery at South Glenstone Avenue and East Seminole Street have a wreath.
All 6,000 gravesites at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery at 5201 S. Southwood Road, in south Springfield, have a wreath.
“It allows the families to know that when they go to visit their loved ones that they are not forgotten,” says Robert Shawley, 54, a veteran who lives near Clever.
Shawley says many families visit the graves of loved ones during the holidays.
Shawley is founder and president of an Ozarks nonprofit called the Itus-Virtus Motorcycle Club. The group’s website says Itus was a Greek god known as protector of the city and Virtus was the Greek god of the military and stood for courage, strength, honor and loyalty.
Members of Itus-Virtus are former military, law enforcement, firefighters and emergency rescue people who share a love of riding motorcycles. The group was founded in 2013.
“We wanted to make people aware that not everybody who rides a motorcycle and wears patches is a bad guy,” Shawley tells me.
The group first placed 275 holiday wreaths on veterans’ graves in 2013. The effort started as part of the Wreaths Across America national program; the group is based in Maine.
“We thought we could do better than that,” says Shawley, who was in the Army from 1983 to 1990 and later was a deputy in both Greene and Christian counties.
This Christmas was the first time all 19,000 gravesites were covered.
It took some 400 volunteers a couple of hours to place the wreaths on the 6,000 graves at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery, in south Springfield, on Dec. 7, which is Pearl Harbor Day.
About 1,000 volunteers took only 75 minutes to place about 13,000 wreaths a week later, when it was much colder.
Walmart, Loren Cook and C of O
One of the volunteers was honorary club member Ed Fox, 97, of Springfield, who is one of the few remaining survivors of the June 4-7, 1942, Battle of Midway in the Pacific Ocean.
Fox is “honorary” because he no longer rides a motorcycle.
Shawley says support has been overwhelming.
Initially, the club thought it would only have funds to do the cemetery in south Springfield.
But a $25,000 donation from the Loren Cook Company, in Springfield, made it possible to cover all gravesites at both cemeteries.
Another big donor was College of the Ozarks, which gave $5,000.
Walmart handled the acquisition of the wreaths, which are made by a company in North Carolina.
Walmart sold the wreaths at cost ($5.01) and, in the end, gave the group another 2,000 wreaths when it looked like the group was going to fall short.
“Walmart was incredibly helpful,” Shawley tells me. “They even showed us how to apply for grants.”
In addition to the two veterans cemeteries, the group also visited other cemeteries to put wreaths on the graves of several law enforcement officers who recently died, including the grave of Aaron Roberts, a Greene County deputy who died on duty during a flash flood in September 2018.
Roberts, who was 36, is buried at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens.
Cemetery workers will remove the wreaths when they turn brown in the coming weeks.
Next year, Shawley says, the groups wants to expand and place wreaths at the veterans cemetery at Fort Leonard Wood.
“We have a great community and a lot of great supporters,” he says.