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This Retired Guardsman Memorializes the Past With Christmas Wreaths

A project organized by a retired Kentucky Air National Guardsman placed a wreath on the grave of Chief Master Sgt. Tommy Downs and more than 130 other unit members last year. Downs, a former command chief of Kentucky’s 123rd Airlift Wing, passed away in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Lee East)
A project organized by a retired Kentucky Air National Guardsman placed a wreath on the grave of Chief Master Sgt. Tommy Downs and more than 130 other unit members last year. Downs, a former command chief of Kentucky’s 123rd Airlift Wing, passed away in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Lee East)

The Christmas season can be a joyous time of family and community, but it's also tinged with sadness for many whose loved ones have passed away. One retired Kentucky Air Guardsman is working to turn that sense of loss into a celebration of life by placing wreaths on the graves of her extended family -- former members of the 123rd Airlift Wing and its predecessor units.

The project, which began in 2011 with one wreath, has now grown to 138, and Lee East needs help to keep it going.

East, who retired from the wing in 2005 after serving 23 years as an imagery interpreter and unit training manager, is looking for volunteers who can deliver the wreaths and place them on the graves of former Kentucky Air Guardsmen. Volunteers also can help by making wreaths, which she has been fabricating herself with assistance from her daughter and others.

"It's so very important to remember our fallen Airmen," said East, who served in a variety of units during her career, including the 165th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, aircraft maintenance and civil engineering.

"Our wing would not be where we are today -- the unit would not have been as successful as it has been -- without all the hard work and sacrifice of the people who've worked there. This is a simple way to honor their service and memory."

East seems the perfect candidate to oversee a project like this. Her family loved Christmas so much, they dedicated two full months each summer to filling the house with holiday music.

"We had a designated period of time over the summer when there was no music in the house except for Christmas music," East recalls. "We got out Christmas albums, and we played nothing but Christmas music all day for the entire months of June and July every year -- Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day."

Their love for the season ran so deep, the family eventually converted their cattle farm, near Shepherdsville, Kentucky, to a Christmas tree farm in 1985.

"My parents sold all the cows and planted 1,500 trees that year," she said.

When her aunt died in 2011, East thought it would be a nice memorial to place one of the family's wreaths on her grave.

"My dad and I sat and talked about it, and we decided we were going to start placing wreaths on the graves of all our family members. It wasn't going to cost us anything other than time on my part, which I was willing to volunteer. So we started doing that. When I would deliver them, it gave me a chance to sit and think about those family members because there were a lot of good memories there."

That year, the former technical sergeant also delivered a wreath to the grave of Lt. Col. Johnny Jones, who had been her supervisor in the 165th.

"He taught me how to be a unit training manager, and I had a lot of respect for him," East said.

Word eventually got out among the Kentucky Air Guard community, and several people asked East if she would make wreaths for other Airmen who had passed.

"The messages I got back from family members were overwhelming," East said of the response. "It was amazing how happy these wreaths made people feel. It was like the way I felt when I first started placing the wreaths on the graves of family members and taking the time to remember them, the stories and the history. So my dad said, 'If this is making people so happy, why don't we just do some more.'

"And it's just grown from there. We've added a few on every year."

East said she's grateful to the Kentucky Air Guardsmen who've already signed on to help, John Amshoff, Connie Carrillo, Tommy James, Randy McLain and others, but more volunteers are needed. The project also had to make some adjustments last year after East's father died, causing her to lose access to free branches from the family tree farm. She now sources the branches at deep discount from a local supplier, Shelby Christmas Tree Farm and Nursery, but East still spends about $5 of her own money for each wreath the project produces.

"The cost is a very minor issue," she said. "It's just so very important to me that this tradition carry on."

Dorenda Stackhouse admires East's determination.

"This is such a wonderful idea, I think we need to do whatever we can to keep it going," said Stackhouse, a former recruiter in the Kentucky Air Guard who retired as a master sergeant in 1999. She started helping East make wreaths last year.

"We have a responsibility to the younger members of the wing to make sure they remember and honor the past. It reminds everyone of the sacrifices these people made. But it's much more than that. This project also supports the family members -- the people left behind."

Stackhouse told how a former Guardsman was overwhelmed with emotion last year when she saw that a wreath had been placed on the grave of her son, who had recently passed away.

"If you could have seen the look on her face, I would have made 200 more. It told her that we cared enough to put that wreath there -- to honor him and to honor her."

To volunteer to help or make a donation, leave a message with Lee East at (502) 408-4892 or Dorenda Stackhouse at (502) 407-2222. Wreath delivery will start the week after Thanksgiving.

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