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New Wreaths Across America group honors 2,100 veterans' graves in North Huntingdon

| Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, 3:18 p.m.

Grave by grave, more than 2,000 veterans in two North Huntingdon cemeteries were honored with wreaths, salutes and thank-yous Saturday with the inauguration of a new chapter of Wreaths Across America.

Over the last four months, Rhonda Hunt of North Huntingdon collected donations, rallied volunteers and tallied veterans' graves in Irwin Union Cemetery and Immaculate Conception Cemetery, having been inspired to adopt the veterans' memorial service by the vets who helped locate and bring home the remains of her husband's uncle, a soldier who had gone missing during the Korean War.

“The veterans who became part of our family to honor him and to bring him home, we wanted to give back to them,” she said.

So Hunt got guidance from the national Wreaths Across America group, but she was responsible for all her own fundraising and volunteer wrangling. Over the course of about a week, she and other volunteers went row-by-row through the hilly cemeteries, counting where the local VFW had placed American flags on veterans' graves; they used plastic utility flags to mark any other graves that noted military service.

By the time they reached the organization's November deadline for ordering wreaths, Hunt said they were short — just 1,300 of about 2,100 wreaths were pledged, at $15 each. But with a one-week extension and a donation from the Pittsburgh Pirates, the group met their goal and had another volunteer truck in the piles of wreaths that were stacked section by section throughout the cemetery.

Saturday afternoon, volunteers gathered at Union Cemetery for a ceremony honoring each branch of the military and the POWs or Missing in Action, then fanned out to carry wreaths to each flag-marked grave. Every time they laid a wreath, they were encouraged to pause, say the veteran's name, and thank them for their service.

Maria Larson-Edwards and her husband, Mike, brought their 3-year-old son Myles to participate in the ceremony.

“Early on, we want to teach him about service, and community, and to understand how important it is to honor those who fought and gave their lives for us,” said Larson-Edwards, 30, of Penn Hills.

Her mother, Nancy Osinski of Churchill, was one of the volunteer coordinators who'd worked alongside Hunt.

“We didn't think we'd make it, but we did: 2,076, so every veteran will get a wreath,” Osinski said. “I had uncles who served, so this is very dear to me. They're all gone, so this is the only way I can honor them.”

In addition to the honor guard, there were several uniformed members of the Norwin High School JROTC among the crowd of about 200 laying wreaths.

“They were willing at one point in their lives to give their lives for us,” said Ken Divens, 17.

“I feel honored to put these wreaths on the graves of veterans because they're not here anymore to honor each other,” said Victoria Gasparovic, 15.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @msantoni.

Maj. Eric Gass with the U.S. Army based out of Coraopolis stands to salute a veteran's gravesite after placing a wreath Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America. Gass serves with the Army's 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Maj. Eric Gass with the U.S. Army based out of Coraopolis stands to salute a veteran's gravesite after placing a wreath Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America. Gass serves with the Army's 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command.
Lt. Col. Retired David Sandala with the U.S. Air Force and a resident of North Huntingdon clears snow from a veteran's grave while placing wreaths with his son, Luke, 11, on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Lt. Col. Retired David Sandala with the U.S. Air Force and a resident of North Huntingdon clears snow from a veteran's grave while placing wreaths with his son, Luke, 11, on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America.
U.S. Army veteran Paul Stampo of Plum carries an armful of wreaths Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America. Volunteers placed wreaths on veteran's graves at Union and Immaculate Conception Cemetery in North Huntingdon.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
U.S. Army veteran Paul Stampo of Plum carries an armful of wreaths Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America. Volunteers placed wreaths on veteran's graves at Union and Immaculate Conception Cemetery in North Huntingdon.
Volunteers walk between grave sites searching for members of the Armed Services to place wreaths Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery in Irwin during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Volunteers walk between grave sites searching for members of the Armed Services to place wreaths Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery in Irwin during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America.
Volunteers listen to a speaker before venturing among graves to place wreaths at Union Cemetery and Immaculate Conception Cemetery on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, for Wreaths Across America.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Volunteers listen to a speaker before venturing among graves to place wreaths at Union Cemetery and Immaculate Conception Cemetery on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, for Wreaths Across America.
Maj. Eric Gass with the U.S. Army unit based out of Coraopolis places a wreath on a veteran's grave Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery  during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America. Gass serves with the Army's 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Maj. Eric Gass with the U.S. Army unit based out of Coraopolis places a wreath on a veteran's grave Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America. Gass serves with the Army's 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command.
Members of the North Huntingdon VFW stand at attention during a wreath laying ceremony Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery before volunteers lay wreaths on veterans' graves for Wreaths Across America.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Members of the North Huntingdon VFW stand at attention during a wreath laying ceremony Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery before volunteers lay wreaths on veterans' graves for Wreaths Across America.
Wreaths are placed Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, in front of the Westmoreland County Courthouse.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Wreaths are placed Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, in front of the Westmoreland County Courthouse.
Volunteer Lennie Fiore of West Newton takes a quiet moment after placing a wreath Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath laying ceremony for Wreaths Across America.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Volunteer Lennie Fiore of West Newton takes a quiet moment after placing a wreath Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath laying ceremony for Wreaths Across America.
A volunteer searches the rows of grave sites to place wreaths Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
A volunteer searches the rows of grave sites to place wreaths Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, at Union Cemetery during a wreath-laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America.
Cadets with the Air Force Junior ROTC salute after placing wreaths Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, as part of the Wreaths Across America event that honored members of the Armed Services by placing wreaths on graves at Union Cemetery and Immaculate Conception Cemetery.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Cadets with the Air Force Junior ROTC salute after placing wreaths Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, as part of the Wreaths Across America event that honored members of the Armed Services by placing wreaths on graves at Union Cemetery and Immaculate Conception Cemetery.
Members of the North Huntingdon VFW prepare to fire volley shots during a ceremony before volunteers place wreaths on veterans' graves Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, during the Wreaths Across America at Union Cemetery.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Members of the North Huntingdon VFW prepare to fire volley shots during a ceremony before volunteers place wreaths on veterans' graves Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, during the Wreaths Across America at Union Cemetery.
Joyce Swerock of North Huntingdon listens Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, during an opening ceremony for the Wreaths Across America wreath-laying event at Union Cemetery and Immaculate Conception Cemetery to honor the graves of deceased armed service members. Swerock's son has served in the U.S Air Force for 22 years.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Joyce Swerock of North Huntingdon listens Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, during an opening ceremony for the Wreaths Across America wreath-laying event at Union Cemetery and Immaculate Conception Cemetery to honor the graves of deceased armed service members. Swerock's son has served in the U.S Air Force for 22 years.
U.S Navy service member Silvia Gutierrez salutes Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, after placing a wreath at Union Cemetery during a wreath laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
U.S Navy service member Silvia Gutierrez salutes Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017, after placing a wreath at Union Cemetery during a wreath laying ceremony as part of Wreaths Across America.
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