BEAUFORT — For the past 12 years, David Edwards has been on a mission.
The retired Navy petty officer second class has been working each year around the holidays to cover every single headstone at Beaufort National Cemetery with a memorial wreath to honor and remember those fallen service members.
It started with 170 wreaths but over the years rose to 21,000 wreaths being donated and placed throughout the 33-acre cemetery.
This year, Edwards is preparing to place around 5,000 wreaths there. But it's still shy of the 26,000 headstones he's trying to reach in Beaufort National Cemetery.
"The year we did 21,000 it looked beautiful," Edwards said, starting to get emotional. "It would mean so much to the people that come and visit the cemetery and their loved ones if we filled the whole place."
Beaufort became the site of a national cemetery in 1863 during Abraham Lincoln's presidency. It's located on Boundary Street, just north of the historic district downtown. It is one of three national cemeteries in South Carolina.
Two Vietnam-era Medal of Honor recipients are buried there: Ralph Henry Johnson and Capt. John James McGinty III. Service members dating back to the Civil War are buried in Beaufort National Cemetery.
Edwards runs the Beaufort chapter of Wreaths Across America, a national nonprofit organization based in Maine which organizes donors and volunteers to help place thousands of wreaths at military cemeteries across the country.
It started in 1992, when Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington, Maine, saw he had an excess of wreaths at the end of the holiday season. Inspired by a trip to Arlington National Cemetery when he was a 12-year-old boy, Worcester decided to give back.
He began working with local veteran service groups to get the wreaths ordered, shipped and placed on headstones. The tradition began to grow.
"The annual tribute went on quietly for several years, until 2005, when a photo of the stones at Arlington, adorned with wreaths and covered in snow, circulated around the internet," the Wreaths Across America website states. "Suddenly, the project received national attention."
More than 2,500 locations across the country, including the Beaufort site, now participate in the tradition where, every Dec. 18, volunteers from across the country lay wreaths on the headstones and say the name of each veteran during the placement.
The wreaths stay until Jan. 20, Edwards said, giving families a time to come visit and remember their loved ones.
"It's been proven that you die twice — once when you pass and once when people stop saying your names," Edwards said. "Our motto is to remember, honor and teach our children about their sacrifice."
Miff Cone, one of the volunteers for the Wreaths Across America effort in Beaufort, said the wreath display is a powerful reminder not to forget each veteran's legacy. Each wreath is made of completely natural materials and costs $15.
"If these men and women are willing to sacrifice for me, how can I not spend $15 to help cover their headstones and honor them?" Cone said. "It's the least we can do for all they've done, It's a way to support them and their families."
Edwards said the deadline to donate wreaths for the effort is by Thanksgiving. Volunteers interested in donating money or those who are interested in placing wreaths can contact the Beaufort Wreaths Across America team by calling 912-313-1506, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or going to www.wreathsacrossamerica.org.