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Wreaths in the Water:

By Staff | Dec 14, 2011

Vincent Cummings, ROA Chaplain and Assistant to Fort Myers Beach Town Manager, stands at salute during a ceremony recognizing the service and sacrifices made by men and women of America's military forces. (Photo by Bill Schiller)

In communities throughout America, on the morning of December 10, citizens took a timeout to reflect and recognize the service rendered by heroes of our nation, the many men and women that maintain our military forces and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the ideals for which this country was founded. An initiative known as Wreaths Across America involved the laying of commemorative wreaths as tributes at the grave sites of fallen veterans, which included more than 100,000 placed at Arlington National Cemetery.

In conjunction with those ceremonies, people of Southwest Florida convened for an ocean-going observance and maritime memorial service distinguished as this nation’s only nautical version of the Wreaths Across America program.

Passengers aboard more than 30 vessels participated, including crews of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Marlin and Marine Divisions of the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Customs & Border Patrol, Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission as well as Police Officers from Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Sanibel.

Captain JC Schwalback, a retired Marine and Captain of the 54-foot Sundancer Yacht of MarineMax, welcomed aboard Lee County dignitaries that included Sanibel Vice Mayor Mick Denham, Cape Coral Mayor John Sullivan, Vincent Cummings, the assistant to the Fort Myers Beach Town Manager who is also a chaplain of the Reserve Officers Association.

Other passengers included Karla Ferrel, former owner of a fitness club in Sanibel, who participated in a similar ceremony last year when she cast, at sea, the ashes of a friend in Denny Sanders, a local veteran distinguished as a member of the honor guard for both President John F. Kennedy and General Douglas MacArthur.

Sanibel Vice Mayor Mick Denham watches as commemorative wreaths are set adrift during a seafaring ceremony distinguished as this nation's only nautical version of the Wreaths Across America program. (Photo by Bill Schiller)

Ethan Campbell, a local representative of the Wreaths Across America Program was also aboard. A retired Navy man, Campell is half-Scottish and half-Japanese and some years ago, he was in Hiroshima during the anniversary of the atomic bombing that culminated in a climactic conclusion to World War II – an experience Campbell describes as “surreal”. But on this day, Campbell reflected on fallen comrades and their service to this country. “I think about their sacrifice… this country was all built on the back of someone who made the ultimate sacrifice, our homes are filled with materials, our lives are filled with opportunities, and sometimes, people don’t recognize just how much we have… we take things for granted, especially the fact that our nation was founded on a set of ideals… beyond the capitalism, beyond the consumerism, we believe in equality, we believe in freedom of speech, freedom to make choices in work we do and freedom of religion,” says Campell. And yes, the faith in those beliefs and efforts to both promote and protect such philosophy, as Campbell notes, has cost the lives of many soldiers.

Sanibel Vice Mayor Mick Denham explains how he was born more than 70 years ago, on a June 6th. Although it was a few years prior, his birthday coincides with the anniversary of D-Day (June 6, 1944) when allied troops confronted formidable German forces in an onslaught on the beaches of Normandy, France – a day distinguished not only for the tragic toll in the taking of human lives, but as a strategic, turning point in World War II.

Mick Denham’s father was there. He served in Her Majesty’s Royal Artillery Unit and was among the first of those who fought so valiantly to secure the beach. He survived, and though he was wounded by shrapnel during the war, went on to live until the age of 95. Vice Mayor Denham was raised in Essex, England. He recalls experiences of his youth, describing how he, like so many other school children, had to carry a gas mask everywhere he went. He recalls the alarm sirens, the sounds from dropping bombs that so plagued England in those years, and certain expressions of fear that frequented his mother’s face. However, he also says, “I was too young to understand or be really frightened… I found it all rather exciting.”

And there is something exciting in being among the flotilla of vessels forming off the coast on what is a beautiful day with blue skies above the slight chop in the emerald to azure ebb of ocean tides.

Operation Tribute Organizer Captain Pat McCarn says “it is wonderful” that boaters can participate in a ceremony such as this, and on this day, the weather seems to agree. The vessels ultimately assembled around the the USCGC Marlin where an Honor Guard from VFW Post 8463 in Cape Coral and a Harp & Thistle Pipe Band opened the ceremony. Passengers among other boats included veterans, some of which, wounded in service.

With radios all tuned to the same frequency, Cape Coral Mayor Sullivan led the gathering in the Pledge of Allegiance. This was followed by remarks Commander Jack Wagner a recipient of the Purple Heart following injuries sustained in 1965.

Vice Mayor Denham also spoke, recalling December 7, 1941, the date, he described the same way as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as living in infamy as American Forces stationed at Pearl Harbor were “suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Denham went on to say, “I invite you today to take a moment to recall the sacrifice of our brave service men and women early one Sunday morning, 64 years ago. And also, to remember all those in uniform that have served our country since.”

The ceremony followed with seven ceremonial wreaths set adrift at sea, each symbolically representing respective units of this nation’s military forces: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Merchant Marine and Navy. The final wreath was floated in recognition of Prisoners of War and those listed as Missing-in-Action.

“We shall not forget you… we shall always remember,” said Captain McCarn.

He encouraged all to take a moment and make a practice of saying “Thank You” to veterans as well as those currently serving because “we owe them.”

“These men and women are part of the best trained, best equipped, force in the world.”