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For the fifth year in a row, every headstone at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery will have a wreath laid on it.

Wreaths Across America has been held annually for about a decade now at the cemetery south of Mandan. Lt. Col. Kevin Iverson, of the Bismarck Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, said Wreaths Across America has a loyal following here.

"So many family members have relatives that are buried out there. You can just see how touching it is for them,"said Iverson, who helps coordinate the event. He also sponsors a wreath for his uncle's grave.

The event begins with a ceremony at 11 a.m. Dec. 15 before volunteers place 6,600 wreaths at headstones.The Bismarck Civil Air Patrol will lead the dedication of wreaths for each branch of the U.S. armed forces, as well as prisoners of war, soldiers missing in action and U.S. Merchant Marines. 

Veterans are nominated to dedicate a wreath for their branch of service at the ceremony. Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. Sean Johnson said anyone can nominate a veteran for the honor; nominations are due Dec. 7, with selection done randomly. About 20 to 30 nominations are received each year.

Over the years, the goal has been to place a wreath upon every grave after the ceremony.

"Every person buried out there made some contribution in some way, big or small, to ensuring that we can live today free and in the greatest nation on earth," Johnson said.

Pam Helbling-Schafer, director of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery since 2012, said supporters can donate $15 to place a wreath on a headstone, or for a volunteer to do so.

With the advent of social media and growing popularity for the event, Helbling-Schafer said participation has grown from 25 people in the first year to 1,500.

"We have volunteers from all over and all ages that come out and help support, and, of course, all are welcome to join in the event," Helbling-Schafer said. 

Iverson said the event is a chance to offer gratitude beyond Memorial Day and other veteran observances. 

"It's a time of year where folks are in the hustle and bustle of life in the holiday season, and it gives them that moment and that day to remember our loved ones, to remember the veterans and to remember what the veterans have done for us and for our country," Helbling-Schafer said. 

Johnson said Wreaths Across America is one of his favorite Christmastime traditions. 

"It is, just because of everything to remember the sacrifices of those that have served, honoring those that are currently serving and then, most importantly, teaching our children that having a life of freedom is priceless but that comes with a price," Johnson said.

Given the winter season, Helbling-Schafer reminds folks to dress appropriately for snow and low temperatures. Iverson recommended carpooling to the cemetery. 

"Fifteen hundred people coming out to a cemetery, standing out in the cold — that's a big deal in North Dakota for us," Iverson said. 

Wreaths Across America nominations are accepted online at bismarckcap.com.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Capitol Reporter