When Pete Headley joined the local chapter of Rolling Thunder (RTTN4) more than nine years ago, he quickly became involved in the organization’s mission — to educate the public about American prisoners of war (POW) and missing-in-action (MIA) military personnel and to help American veterans from all wars.
Headley’s desire to honor all the veterans led him to one of the chapter’s key activities — “Wreaths Across America,” a national project started in Maine where wreaths are created with live balsam evergreen boughs, decorated with a red ribbon, and placed on the graves of deceased veterans to show respect and appreciation during the December holidays.
“Kids today don’t know a lot about our military history,” Headley said. “We need to show the next generation how the U.S. military personnel of all five branches preserved our freedom by putting their lives on the line, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice, dying in battle… we need to honor all those men and women in our country who served.”
There are more than 17,000 graves at the Veterans Administration (VA) Mountain Home National Cemetery in Johnson City; RTTN4’s ultimate goal is to place a wreath at every headstone.
The group joined forces several years ago with other veteran-oriented organizations to support this project when the cemetery received 400 wreaths from Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. — extra wreaths that were not needed there.
“That’s when Bob Rambo, former chairman of the board and current president of RTTN4, contacted Wreaths Across America to get our chapter more involved,” Headley said. “Last year was our best year. The veteran-oriented organizations in the Tri-Cities raised funds for more than 7,300 wreaths, but we’re still missing out on honoring 10,000 other veterans and spouses buried at Mountain Home.”
Rambo appointed Headley as chapter coordinator of the Wreaths Across America project. Since, he has been working around the clock to encourage more individuals and organizations to donate and participate in Wreaths Across America each year.
Rolling Thunder is one of the fundraising groups that will accept requests to sponsor specific graves of loved ones buried at Mountain Home National Cemetery. Those wreaths will be placed at the donors’ designated gravestones on Friday, Dec. 13.
On Saturday, Dec. 14, the public is encouraged to help place the remaining wreaths on graves as directed by the Mountain Home National Cemetery staff. A special ceremony will begin at noon with the wreath placement to follow at approximately 12:40 p.m. Anyone planning to attend is asked to arrive early or wait until the ceremony is complete out of respect for the families and veterans involved. The wreaths will remain until early January.
The cost per wreath is $15, all tax deductible. Checks should be made out to Wreaths Across America and mailed to 1056 Waterbrooke Lane, Johnson City, TN 37604. The deadline for receipt of checks is Monday, Nov. 25. If the wreath is to be placed at a specific gravestone, please include a note with the veteran’s full name, date of birth, and date of passing or cemetery section letter/gravestone number, if known. For more information about RTTN#4’s efforts, contact Headley at [email protected] or (423) 926-2233.
Rolling Thunder is a military-oriented organization using motorcycles to bring attention to the plight of many military veterans and to honor veterans of all wars since the American Revolution. At the request of funeral homes and families, local chapter members can provide an escort with motorcycles for transport of remains to the VA cemetery and other local cemeteries as well as provide an honor guard. As co-chaplain of the chapter, Headley has given prayers at the VA Community Living Center for individual veterans, at funeral homes, at cemeteries, and on Memorial Day and Veterans Day at the Tri-Cities Veterans Memorial parks.
“We do a ‘Missing Military Person’ table ceremony, a flag-folding demonstration explaining the meaning of each of the 13 folds, and a ‘roll call’ for more than 80,000 military personnel still unaccounted for since World War I, as well as playing taps for nursing homes, churches, and other organizations,” Headley said.
Headley has participated in more than 100 of the chapter’s events/activities during the last four years. He and his fellow RTTN4 members have encouraged ailing veterans by visiting them, hosting pizza socials, and playing cards with them at the VA Mountain Home campus. The chapter also hosts veteran recognition days at nursing homes and annually is present in formation at East Tennessee State University’s Veterans Day ceremony on or near Nov. 11.
RTTN4 covers Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and Western North Carolina. The chapter welcomes new people and invites them to join. It meets the second Monday of each month at the American Legion Post No. 49 Watauga, 111 W. G Street in Elizabethton, at 7 p.m.
“You don’t have to be ex-military, nor do you need to ride a motorcycle to become a member,” Headley said. “The Rolling Thunder motto is ‘Never Forget’ as they do their best to make this a reality. Wreaths Across America provides an opportunity for the public to do this as well.”
For more information on RTTN4, visit www.rollingthundertn4.com. To learn more about Wreaths Across America, visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org. To learn more about the ceremony, contact David Carter at (423) 349-4622 or [email protected] or Allen Jackson at (423) 753-4165 or [email protected] You can also sponsor wreaths for Mountain Home National Cemetery online at wreathsacrossamerica.org/tnmhnm.