Fallen soldiers honored at three Clay County ceremonies

By Nick Blank, Lisa Murphy and Don Coble
Posted 12/22/21

CLAY COUNTY – Melissa Williams took three wreaths from a stack and journeyed into a large plot of graves and wilted flowers. She painstakingly stopped at each marker to see if it was the headstone …

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Fallen soldiers honored at three Clay County ceremonies

Posted

CLAY COUNTY – Melissa Williams took three wreaths from a stack and journeyed into a large plot of graves and wilted flowers. She painstakingly stopped at each marker to see if it was the headstone for a fallen veteran, often using her hand to clear away leaves and dirt.

When she found a final resting place of an American soldier, she carefully placed the wreath at the marker. Then she paused, said the soldier’s name and crossed herself to ask for peace and reverence for the hero.

Then she moved to another grave.

That routine was carried out by more than 1,000 residents at three Wreaths Across America Day remembrances last Saturday. Williams joined hundreds at the Keystone Heights Memorial Gardens. Others attended programs at Hardage-Giddens Holly Hill Memorial Park in Middleburg, while hundreds more honored the memories of fallen service people at Orange Park’s Jacksonville Memory Gardens.

The largest remembrance was at Jacksonville Memory Gardens, where 3,316 wreaths were distributed. That cemetery is the final resting place for more than 5,000 soldiers.

In addition to a pre-ceremony flyover, servicemen placed coins on markers of their military brothers. They left a penny if they weren’t friends; a nickel if they completed boot camp together; a dime if they were in the same unit; and, a quarter if they were together when the other lost his life.

More than 500 wreaths were placed at both Keystone Heights and Middleburg.

Retired Army Col. Matt Johnson, who is also St. Johns Classical Academy's Headmaster, told the story of his grandfather, Pete Delgado, a World War II veteran who died in a car accident not long after he returned. Delgado earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Europe.

At Middleburg, Ret. Army Col. Matt Johnson, who also is the Headmaster at St. Johns Classical Academy, said he discovered his grandfather’s, Pete Delgado, accomplishments later and started to piece together who his grandfather was and what he did. He created a memorial for Delgado at his mother’s house.

“That’s one way we can remember my grandfather’s service,” Johnson said.

Johnson said it's crucial to remember because it defines the nation.

“There’s a story behind every service member,” Johnson said. “ ... Some of them are funny and some of them are sad."

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