A crisp chill Saturday morning didn’t stop nearly 75 people from gathering at Crestview Memorial Park in St. Clair to bring a national tradition to a local cemetery for the first time. 

Her breath visible, Debbie Moon Hinz, of the Valley of the Meramec chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, spoke passionately about the need to remember, honor and teach others about the sacrifices made by U.S. veterans. 

“We’re all proud to be Americans that live in a free society made up of people from many walks of life, but the freedom we enjoy today has not come without a price,” Hinz said. “We thank those who gave their lives to keep us free, and we shall not forget you. We shall remember.” 

The event marked the first observance in Franklin County of Wreaths Across America, an annual laying of wreaths on the graves of veterans throughout the country. The tradition began at Arlington National Cemetery in 1992 and has grown to include more than 2,700 public and private cemeteries and honors hundreds of thousands of late service members — including all 211 buried at Crestview.

Among them was Roscoe “Uhl” Stephens, a World War II Army veteran and longtime Lonedell resident who passed away in 2007. Two of his children, Teddy Stephens, of Hillsboro, and Sheila Dickhans, of Lonedell, recalled their dad’s love of hunting, fishing and being outdoors as they placed a wreath on his gravestone. 

“I hope people can remember that freedom isn’t free, and you have to make sacrifices sometimes,” Stephens said after a moment of silence for his father. 

Stephens said his father served in Okinawa, Japan, and in Iceland, among other places, and he rarely talked about his time in the Army. 

“I think of him often. I reflect on him often,” he said. “That generation, they lived through the Great Depression — had a very rough time growing up, and then they went and served in the war.”

Another generation of veterans who had a difficult time adjusting, according to organizers, those who served in Vietnam. Hinz’s late husband, Charles “Chuck” Hinz, served during that conflict.

“He was in the Navy, so he didn’t see action like a lot of them did. There were a lot of people who worked stateside, but still, that was four-plus years of their lives that they were away from their families,” Hinz said. “And there were so many who were right in the midst of things and went through all that trauma.”

For many years, Chuck and Debbie Moon Hinz attended Wreaths Across America at the Missouri State Veterans Home and Cemetery in St. James. Until this year, the small city near Rolla was the closest to Franklin County to hold the observance, and Hinz said her husband of nearly five decades looked forward to honoring his fellow veterans each year. After his passing in September 2020, Hinz said she wanted to honor him in the same way.

The Daughters of the American Revolution Valley of the Meramec chapter had been talking about how to bring the event to Franklin County, and Hinz and Rosalie McGaugh, among others, volunteered to organize the effort. 

Purchasing wreaths from the national organization for the 211 veterans in Crestview Memorial Park required donations of nearly $3,000. McGaugh said she was pleased with the turnout Saturday and hopes the event will spread. 

McGaugh said she especially enjoyed seeing the roughly three dozen members of St. Clair’s Junior ROTC program help distribute the wreaths. Also in attendance were members of the V.F.W, the American Legion and the Patriot Riders. 

Before the wreaths were laid on individual graves, eight ceremonial wreaths were placed in honor of veterans and active service members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Space Force, Merchant Marine and all veterans whose last known status is either Missing in Action or Prisoner of War. 

The wreath for Army veterans was laid by William “Pete” Sachs, a 99-year-old World War II veteran who served from 1943 to 1945 in the Pacific theater and who was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. 

After being struck by a bullet in the Battle of Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands, Sachs was almost run over by a tank. A fellow soldier saved his life by crawling into the tank and telling the driver Sachs had fallen in its path. 

It’s these sacrifices Hinz hopes Wreaths Across America will make people remember. Equally important, she said, is teaching the next generation. Bundled in his bright red coat, Hinz’s 10-year-old great-nephew Noah King,  ran to collect wreaths and place them at the gravestones of the veterans, remembering his Great-Uncle Chuck as he did.

“When we’d come down, he took me to the pool,” said the fourth-grader from Troy, Illinois. 

Ashley King, Noah’s mother, said her son misses his uncle a lot and enjoyed spending time with him.

“(Chuck) played a lot of music and was really good at guitar. He loved a good crossword puzzle,” King said. “Every time I hear the song ‘Toes’ by Zac Brown Band, I think of my uncle. I swear that was his theme song. It just describes him so well.”

King said that bringing Noah to the event Saturday was important not only to honor his uncle but also to teach him about their family’s history of service. 

“I’m an (Air Force) veteran myself, and my husband is still active duty,” she said. “We come from a long line of veterans, and it’s important he knows that and has that sense of pride.”