On a recent December day, the parents of a young fallen Marine turned their grief into an outpouring of love for thousands of American heroes.
John and Susan McColley hosted a Christmas wreath laying at Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia. With the help of volunteers, the couple laid wreathes on the grave of their son, Sgt. Jonathan "Eric" McColley, and the tombs of 2,000 other soldiers.
Eric McColley, 23, died when his helicopter crashed in Africa in 2006. He had served in the Marines for five years, including a tour in Iraq.
The McColleys purchased the wreaths with money raised through the Sgt. Mac Foundation, a nonprofit they formed in honor of their son, and ABF Trucking transported the wreaths to Quantico free of charge. Dozens of volunteers helped lay the greenery, showing support for the McColleys and gratitude to the veterans who gave their lives.
“These people served our country, so it’s always good to give back,” said Jake Roberts, 17, of Spotsylvania, Va., who helped lay wreaths with fellow members of the Quantico Young Marines. “They made the ultimate sacrifice.”
From One To Hundreds
The McColleys laid wreaths at the cemetery for the first time in 2006. They put a wreath on their son’s grave one week, and the following week they bought a fresh wreath to put in its place. But instead of simply replacing the old wreath with the new one, the McColleys moved the old, still green wreath to another grave. After transferring wreaths a couple of times, the McColleys convinced the store where they bought the decorations to give them a deal on a bulk purchase of about 500 wreaths.
On a rainy Christmas Day, the McColleys, along with their daughter, Cheryl Newbanks, 27, laid the wreaths on the graves in Quantico’s Section 10, where their son is buried. As the McColleys leaned the wreaths against the stark white headstones one by one, passersby stopped to help, and several asked for wreaths to put on their loved ones’ tombs. The response got the McColleys thinking that they should lay more wreaths this holiday.
“Last year, there were not a lot of wreaths because … these young men don’t have family in the area,” said Susan McColley. “These young men have died, and their families are all over the country. I count my blessings that I’m able to come here all the time.”
A ‘Terrific Friend’
For the McColleys laying the wreaths is about more than decorating graves, it’s about healing. It’s about remembering Eric, who his family describes as a happy redhead who loved life and was the picture-perfect son.
“My son was the love of our life,” Susan McColley said. “He never gave us a minute’s hardship. We did everything together.”
Susan McColley said she would always cherish her memories of attending Jimmy Buffett concerts, walking on the beach and riding motorcycles with Eric.
“We had more fun packed into these 23 years than most mothers have in a lifetime,” Susan McColley said. “We were terrific friends.”
Newbanks said she would always remember her brother as an outgoing guy who held his service in the Marines in high regard. Joining the military “was a big decision for him,” she said. “He was going to stick it out for 20 years. He loved being a Marine.”
A Christmas Message
A few minutes after the wreath laying began, the volunteers had the 2,000 holiday decorations in place. Bob Caulfield, of Fredericksburg, Va., helped lay the wreaths with his 6-year-old great-grandson, Shawn Gray. Looking out at the freshly decorated tombs, Caulfield said he was glad to do something to show his great-grandson the true meaning of Christmas.
“I wanted to show him that there’s another part of Christmas besides Santa Claus,” Caulfield said.
The McColleys and their daughter were humbled by the response from the volunteers.
“It’s hard to imagine that people aren’t going to know [Eric],” said Newbanks, who named her youngest son after her brother. “We will just have to make sure we tell [everyone] about him to keep his memory alive.”
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of American-Journal. The McColleys continue to host the annual wreath-laying project at Quanitco National Cemetery. For more information, visit www.sgtmac.org