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10th annual Christmas Honors Wreath event set Dec. 8

Times Record - 11/17/2018

Nov. 17--Philip Merry Jr. and 11 of his friends have spent a decade working to ensure the sacrifices of military veterans and their families play an important part in Fort Smith's Christmas season.

The 10th annual Christmas Honors Wreath event will begin for the public at 11 a.m.Dec. 8 at the U.S. National Cemetery, 522 S. Sixth St., and will call for veterans' family members, friends and all others in the community to place a wreath on each of the more than 16,000 headstones in the cemetery, said Philip H. Merry Jr., chairman and founder of the event. The placing of the wreaths will honor the veterans and their loved ones, he said.

"Christmas Honors started in 2009 and has happened every year here, and the time has flown," said Merry, who traditionally has been joined by fellow Christmas Honors organizers Lea Taylor, Todd McCorkle, Claude Legris, Sheri Neely, Kelly Clark, Johnny Helms, Melissa Hanesworth, Kyra Jenner, Chris Ward, Jim Bergnen and Arline Coatney to make Christmas Honors happen each year. "This has been a passion and a labor of love, and it's all gone so quickly.

"Each year, Christmas Honors has become an interactive, year-round adoration of U.S. National Cemetery and the veterans," he added. "You see history teachers go out to the cemetery to teach class. It really is an ongoing thing."

This year's Christmas Honors program is expected to draw more than 2,000 area residents and visitors and will include Greenwood Mayor Doug Kinslow as a featured guest speaker, Merry said.

"At 11:25 a.m., something happens that is mind-boggling," he said. "While speed was never the objective of Christmas Honors, the entire cemetery is decorated and transformed by the wreaths in three minutes and 45 seconds.

"It comes from a good system in staging the wreaths, so no matter where you are in the cemetery, a wreath will be in close proximity," Merry added. "You'll see 15,800 wreaths are placed, and it looks like one of those time-lapse films of a rosebud opening quickly. It's an outpouring of adoration and respect."

Kinslow said he felt overwhelmed and honored to be asked to share some words during the upcoming ceremony.

"The veterans are why we are free," he said. "My late father, Fred Kinslow Sr., served in the Air Force, as did my late brother, Fred Kinslow Jr., so I will touch upon that.

"My father was in the Korean War and he was my biggest supporter; I miss him very much," Kinslow added. "I will do this in his honor and in the honor of all veterans."

A special time for the family members of veterans buried at the cemetery will be held from 8-11 a.m.Dec. 8 at the cemetery, which will allow those relatives to place wreaths on their loved ones' headstones, Merry said.

"We ask that people please, please, please respect the privacy of the veterans' families at that time," he said. "The community then can come to the cemetery for the 11 a.m. ceremony."

Volunteers still are needed to help assemble and prepare the wreaths, Merry said. Volunteers can attend the annual Wreath Workshop/Assembly event from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.Dec. 5 at Hall inside the Fort Smith Convention Center, 55 S. Seventh St.

"We are telling everyone that we are assembling the wreaths on Wednesday of that week -- Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday," Merry said. "We'll have north of 800 volunteers helping assemble on that day.

"You'll see a veteran in a wheelchair at that workshop, teaming with junior students or other children to make beautiful wreaths," he added. "One will hold the wreath while the other spruces it up. Talk about teamwork."

Patriotic and Christmas music will be played during the assembly session, which will include food, soft-drinks, hot chocolate, coffee and more, Merry said. The annual Wreath Pick-Up and Storage event will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.Jan. 8 at Hall C.

According to Merry, Christmas Honors as a prime example of Fort Smith's support of military veterans and their families.

"This town has a love affair with U.S. National Cemetery and the veterans," he said. "And whoever wants to say 'Thank you,' please don't thank us. Just thank a veteran. America has challenges from time to time, but we can agree that veterans are the heroes. If the veterans didn't do what they did then, how could we do what we do now?"

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(c)2018 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.)

Visit Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.) at www.swtimes.com

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