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Fort Smith's Christmas Honors

Fort Smith's Christmas Honors

Christmas Honors covers two more cemeteries with wreaths

Widow of a 9/11 hero will keynote Fort Smith ceremony

Few activities have been embraced by so many as Christmas Honors, the all-volunteer placement of evergreen wreaths at every grave in Fort Smith’s U.S. National Cemetery.

Since 2009, so many people have contributed  to the mission to “Present appreciation to veterans and their families such that they will never be forgotten,” that 12,000 wreaths were placed in the first year and about 16,000 will be placed this year. All of the graves have been decorated each year, from the start.

Chairman Phillip Merry said donors and helpers never fail to meet every need of Christmas Honors – something that increases his faith in this community. Each year, he notices that something especially touching will happen, something unanticipated. 

A goosebump-raising moment has occurred even before this year’s Dec. 16 ceremony, Merry said. Just before a board meeting at which he planned to propose replacing all 16,000 wreaths, he heard from other groups who are building wreath programs at other cemeteries, but had not been able to decorate every grave. 

The combined number of wreaths needed, to fully decorate all of their cemeteries??

“It adds up to 16,000,”?Merry said. The Christmas Honors board voted unanimously to buy new wreaths and donate our existing ones.

“Because of the tremendous support we’ve had here, Fort Smith’s Christmas Honors can help complete decorations at two more military cemeteries. Fort Gibson National Cemetery at Muskogee, Okla., had been able to cover about 12,000 of its 22,000 graves – we can give them 10,000. North Little Rock’s Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery had 8,000 wreaths, but needed 6,000.”  Three hundred more surplus wreaths have helped to mark veterans graves in Mena, he added.

This gift is possible because in a one-year fund drive, donors here gave more than the amount needed to purchase new wreaths for Fort Smith’s National Cemetery. 

“Isn’t it nice to know that Fort Smith will help, directly or indirectly, to decorate and pay respects to over 46,000 veterans and their families at Christmastime?”?Merry said.

The surplus wreaths are still usable because of the care taken each year by volunteers who clean up the greenery and replace faded bows before packing them to be stored at Baldor Electric Co., which provides warehouse space for the cartons of greens.

Past drives have replaced any worn-out decorations, so the donated wreaths will look fresh and uniform when placed at the other Oklahoma and Arkansas cemeteries.

“Our new wreaths are a bit larger than the originals, at 24-inch diameter, and have a very pretty, glossy appearance,” he said. “The cemetery will look beautiful this year.”?

Every Christmas Honors volunteer has his or her own reason to help decorate the graves of veterans with a wreath, or to help to place flags at Veterans Day and Memorial Day, two other honors observed by volunteers at Fort Smith National Cemetery. It may be to show love for a relative, or a fellow serviceperson, to pay respect for all military service or just for love of country. 

Bailey shares her appreciaton for honor ceremonies 
and comfort they may bring to surviving loved ones


This year at Christmas?Honors, a guest speaker will share what her family feels during such honor ceremonies. Deena Burnett Bailey has attended more than most people. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was a stay-at-home mother of three living in California when her husband, Tom, made the last phone calls of his life, to tell Deena that his plane, United Flight 93, had been overtaken by terrorists.

In short calls, he described the desperate situation aboard the plane, which now had a hijacker at the controls. Deena told him that other airliners had crashed into the World Trade?Center and then, the Pentagon. Her husband was relaying this news to fellow passengers, who now understood their own jet was intended as a suicide missile. His last words to Deena were “We’re going to do something.”?

The 40 passengers and crew then defended the nation with their lives by storming the cockpit together to fight the terrorists, rather than let them fly into another target. Their heroic revolt is credited with crashing the 757 into an empty field near Shanksville, Pa. All 44 aboard died in the 563-mph impact.

No one on the ground was injured.

Investigations later determined the terrorists’ intended target had been Washington, either the White House or the Congress. The brave passengers and crew stopped them.

While a stunned nation reacted to the attacks, loved ones suffered the shock and pain of their personal losses. Deena was left with three daughters under the age of 6. Some families withdrew into private grief. Deena, who has said in interviews that every expectation of her family’s life was changed that day, found herself influenced by Tom’s principles and courage. She did accept interviews and became, over time, one of the leading voices and advocates for other surviving families.

She successfully spearheaded an effort to have the Flight 93 cockpit voice recorder released in April 2002.  She took on the Bin Laden family in a lawsuit to freeze assets and bankrupt more than 150 terrorist organizations around the world. Twice she testified against Al Qaeda members in European criminal trials.

Deena has represented 911 families at the White House, Pentagon and the Congress. She has appeared on all major television networks, in more than 1,000 newspapers and magazines and has been interviewed by national figures such as Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, Oprah Winfrey, Matt Lowery and Diane Sawyer. She participated in the making of 23 documentaries and one film about Sept. 11. She wrote a book, “Living Life Beyond Ourselves: Fighting Back,” which inspired the movie “Portrait of Courage: The Untold Story of Flight 93.”

Soon after Tom’s death, Deena and her children returned to live in her native Arkansas, where Christmas Honors chairman Phil Merry met her for the first time at a patriotic ceremony. Each 4th of July at Lake Ouachita, Merry conducts a flag-raising ceremony, originally for children, to teach them about the U.S. flag. In 2004, Deena and the children were visiting her father, who pastors a church near the lake. Bill Barnes, the owner of Mountain Harbor Resort, connected Merry with her and Merry invited her to speak.

“It was only three years after 911,” Merry said. “I was so impressed with her calm, strength and presence,”?he said. He has wanted Deena to speak at Christmas Honors ever since it began in 2009 and, this year, she will be able to come.

“What she has to say about how she feels during the silence of a patriotic ceremony – that’s what I want people to hear,”?Merry said. “I will leave it to her tell it, but you never know who you are helping when you respect the flag.”

Merry has signaled respect for the heroes of Flight 43 by placing a Christmas Honors wreath at the Shanksville 911 memorial site in 2011, at the 10-year anniversary ceremony.

The gesture is another tie that bonded Deena with Christmas Honors. Merry is looking forward to having her see the Dec. 16 events.

“I’m sorry she won’t be able to see the Dec. 15 workday, when hundreds of volunteers unpack the wreaths,”?he said. Many of the same people volunteer each year and some traditions have been created. The Northside High School ROTC chapter asked and was given permanent assignment to place wreaths in the “Unknown” graves section. It is an honor within the ROTC earned by grades and conduct to be able to participate, Merry said.

“The hardest workers are veterans themselves,”?he said. “We on the committee call ourselves ‘Team Unworthy’ – if you want to thank someone on this day, thank a veteran.”

This article appears in the December 2017 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.


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