Fallen warriors honored by Wreaths Across America in Norwich

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Dec. 16, 2013
Members of the Connecticut Patriot Guard Riders decorate the war memorials at Chelsea Parade in Norwich. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Members of the Connecticut Patriot Guard Riders decorate the war memorials at Chelsea Parade in Norwich. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

The bitter cold that accompanied the season’s first snowfall didn’t deter organizers and participants from honoring the city’s war dead at the first-ever visit from Wreaths Across America to Norwich. In fact, Dennis Baptiste of the Norwich Area Veterans’ Council saw the snow as an added blessing. “The wreaths will look nice with all the snow in the background,” he said.

Nor did the snow deter 85-year-old Norman Babbitt, a veteran from Thompson who arrived at Chelsea Parade - lawn chair and American flag in hand - a half-hour before the tractor trailer full of wreaths pulled up on Broadway. An Army veteran of the Korean War and the adjutant of VFW Post 10088 in Quinebaug, Babbitt said this trip to the ceremony might well be his last due to his age. “It’s always great to be a part of this group,” he said. “It’s a 50-mile ride down here, but it’s a beautiful morning to be riding anyway. It’s quite a thing.”

WAA came to Norwich at the invitation of the Veterans’ Council to perform a ceremony and place eight Christmas wreaths at the city’s war memorials on Chelsea Parade. The convoy carrying wreaths for memorials and cemeteries across the country stopped in the Rose City en route to its final destination at Arlington National Cemetery. Local officials and veterans’ groups attended the short ceremony, along with a choir of singers from Teachers’ Memorial Middle School, who performed both patriotic and seasonal songs.

Two local Gold Star families who had lost a loved one in combat were the guests of honor, and each was formally presented with a wreath of their own. One loss was within recent memory: Maureen and Art Robidoux accepted a wreath in memory of their son and stepson, Army 1st Lt. Keith Heidtman, who was killed in Iraq in 2007.

The other loss dates back 45 years, to the Vietnam War. Randy Greene of Norwich and Laurie Wadja of Griswold recalled the day in 1968 that the news came to their Taftville home that their big brother, Jimmy Greene, had died in Vietnam. Jimmy had been just 19; Laurie was 8 and Randy 13. “I remember that morning, how upset my mother was,” Wadja recalled. “There was a lot of crying, yelling and screaming that morning.” The siblings, together with Wadja’s daughter and granddaughter, received an evergreen wreath adorned with a small American flag and a white bow from Skip Petras of Connecticut Patriot Guard Riders.

Patriot Guard members placed wreaths on the monuments honoring Norwich natives who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the nation’s wars from the American Revolution through the war on terror. Trumpeters from Norwich Free Academy’s band played “Taps” to conclude the remembrance.

The Wreaths Across America project was born when the Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, suddenly found itself awash in unsold wreaths at Christmas, said Baptiste. They sent the surplus to Arlington to decorate the graves of fallen military personnel, and a photo of Christmas wreaths on rows of snowy graves went viral on the Internet. Since 1992, the project has grown to a nationwide effort to honor and remember the nation’s war dead and to teach communities about the value of patriotism.

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