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Wreaths for the fallen
Warriors Walk gets holiday decorations
wreath laying 4
Cpl. Joshua Declouette lays a wreath for his friend, the late Sgt. John Mele II. - photo by Photo by Denise Etheridge
Warriors Walk Ceremony was Saturday under slate gray skies. Family members, soldiers, veterans and community volunteers huddled in the stands, determined to pay tribute to their fallen warriors despite cold wind and rain.
The wreath laying at Fort Stewart coincides with the national Wreaths Across America, when wreaths are placed on soldiers’ graves at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Wreaths were laid at the base of 421 eastern red bud trees lining two long cement walks at the edge of Cottrell Field. Warriors Walk is dedicated to the service men and women attached to the 3rd Infantry Division who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The trees bloom in April, the month that ground forces moved into Baghdad and brought down the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“I am really pleased with the turnout today,” said Bruce Muncher, vice-president of Wreaths for Warriors Walk, Inc.
Muncher said it was gratifying to see “young and old,” veterans, boy scouts and girl scouts, soldiers, military families and others gather to support one another during the ceremony.
“We’ve got our future and our past involved here,” he said.
Muncher was also pleased the organization gained its first major sponsor this year. Chili’s restaurant in Hinesville had a successful fundraising night on Dec. 8 to help raise money for the wreaths.
“I heard they were so busy some people had a 20-30 minute wait (at Chili’s),” he said.
Muncher, and his former commanding officer Tony Justi, founded Wreaths for Warriors Walk, Inc., in the spring of 2007. The non-profit group’s other board members include Susan Ammons and Jackie Fronshell.
Muncher explained that along with wreaths for each soldier’s memorial, six ceremonial wreaths are presented during the ceremony.
“These wreaths are given to the cities that border Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Air Field,” he said.
Two wreaths would also be laid at the Desert Storm and Vietnam memorials on Fort Stewart, Muncher added.
“We’re united at the start of a very special season,” said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Philips, 3rd ID deputy commanding general-rear. “We enrich our holiday with an act of remembering our fallen.”
Phillips thanked the families of fallen soldiers who made “a long and difficult journey” to attend the ceremony.
He also recalled the most recent tree dedication which was held for Staff Sgt. Christopher Rudzinski in November. Rudzinski died on Oct. 16 from wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his vehicle near Kandahar, Afghanistan. 
After prayers and poetry were recited, family members, soldiers and volunteers were handed wreaths which they proceeded to place at the base of every tree along Warriors Walk.
Parents, spouses, siblings and children wept, comrades of the fallen kneeled and spoke to their departed brethren and some families greeted each other warmly, forever connected by a mutual loss.
“It’s my favorite ceremony of the year,” said Selia Tumanuvao, whose husband, Sgt. Lui Tumanuvao, was killed while serving in Iraq. “It’s like a get-together with all the other families of the fallen soldiers.”
Selia Tumanuvao said having the support of the other families has helped her cope with her own loss.
Sgt. 1st Class Terry Upchurch, a friend of the late Sgt. Tumanuvao, said the ceremony helps family members “reconnect” to the military ties that once sustained their fallen soldiers.
Cpl. Joshua Declouette laid a wreath at the memorial of Sgt. John Mele II. Declouette served with Mele in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The soldiers were assigned to the same forward operating base, Declouette recalled. Mele went on the mission. Declouette had orders to stay behind.
Mele is survived by his wife and daughter, Declouette said.
“They were unable to come today because his daughter was sick,” he said. “I would have escorted the family had they been able to come.”
Members of the U.S. Military Veterans Motorcycle Club Surrency Chapter volunteered to lay wreaths, so that no memorial was left untouched.
“We’re paying tribute to our brothers,” said Jesse “Short Fuse” Bowling, a club member and two-time Iraq War veteran.
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