For many, inaction in face of veterans' needs is unthinkable
FREMONT - Three years ago, Gerry Tilley was a delegate from the East Kingston Community United Methodist Church to an annual conference and attended a workshop to learn about the needs of veterans.
"At that workshop I was told that 50 percent of all homeless people are vets, and I said, 'That can't be. I can't let that be that way,'" Tilley said, her eyes filling with tears as she recalled the moment she learned the sad reality of life for many after the military.
Tilley returned to her home in Fremont and felt she needed to act.
She began with an effort to place stars on a Christmas tree in front of the Fremont Town Hall to honor New Hampshire veterans.
She then helped organize veterans' ceremonies in East Kingston and Fremont, and this year decided more needed to be done.
With the stories from war heroes like her late father, World War II Navy veteran Charles Tilley, on her mind, Tilley contacted Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit Maine-based organization on a mission to honor veterans by placing remembrance wreaths on their gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery and others around the country.
Tilley became a volunteer "location leader" to oversee an effort to place wreaths on veterans' stones in Fremont and East Kingston. Several other volunteers have organized similar campaigns to deliver wreaths to cemeteries in their communities.
"It would be nice if all communities would do it," said Raymond resident and Air Force veteran Tim Louis, a member of the Raymond Rotary Club who volunteered to help place the wreaths at a Fremont cemetery.
Through donations from local businesses, individuals, and organizations, Tilley was able to find enough sponsors to place nearly 350 remembrance wreaths on veterans' stones in Fremont and East Kingston.
The wreaths were delivered to the parking lot of the Peoples United Methodist Church in Fremont and sent off with volunteers.
"I prayed that people's hearts would be touched, that this had meaning for. I was just overwhelmed with the generosity and the meaning that it had for the people. Talking with people on the phone was incredible. I'd hear their stories and I could tell my dad's torpedo story. It was this bonding amongst people who had never met each other," Tilley said.
Air Force veteran Mike Benjamin of East Kingston also pitched in to help distribute the wreaths in his town.
"I know quite a few of the souls that are going to get the wreaths. It's Christmas and this is important to their families," he said.
Fifth-graders from East Kingston Elementary School plan to help place some of the wreaths, while on Monday Jamie Thompson of Fremont brought his four children to the Village Cemetery in Fremont to help lay wreaths because the kids had no school and his son, James, 7, is a Cub Scout with Fremont Pack 1. He said he wanted the children to learn the importance of volunteering and remembering the sacrifices of the veterans there.
"I was just hoping the kids might get something out of this," said Thompson, a den leader.