Volunteer Shivanie Ramotar, of Queens, places a wreath on a headstone...

Volunteer Shivanie Ramotar, of Queens, places a wreath on a headstone as part of a Wreaths Across America tribute at Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, on Saturday. Credit: Morgan Campbell

The families and friends of fallen veterans gathered Saturday in Pinelawn to pay tribute to their sacrifices in an annual nationwide tradition of laying fresh wreaths on the graves of soldiers.

More than 35,000 wreaths were estimated to be laid at Long Island National Cemetery on Saturday as part of Wreaths Across America, according to representatives from the Long Island Senior Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. An annual December event held since 2008, Civil Air Patrol squadrons in 2019 placed just under 2.2 million wreaths at more than 2,000 locations nationwide.

Shortly after 12 p.m., more than 100 people gathered at the center of Long Island National Cemetery to lay wreaths in a special ceremony.

Kevin Hertell, founder and president of Huntington-based nonprofit Suicide Awareness and Remembrance Flag, told Newsday he was there honoring veterans like his cousin Robert Dean, a senior airman in the Air Force from Georgia. Dean, who served in Afghanistan, died in 2016 by suicide after struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was 23.

Dean’s death inspired Hertell to start the nonprofit, which raises awareness of suicide and mental health issues facing veterans and active military members. Hertell said roughly 20 people from his group, several of them veterans, were at the cemetery Saturday, and for them, laying wreaths at the graves held deep meaning.

"It’s personal for us because most of us are veterans and we have served and we have lost friends and family," Hertell said, "but for others like me, not only is it a friend but it’s also a family member, my cousin."

Robert Gaba, 84, of Deer Park, a Civil Air Force captain, laid the wreath representing the U.S. Army during the ceremony, where members of the public laid wreaths for every military branch.

Gaba, who joined the Army in 1958, said he was also honoring his late uncle, Edward Gaba, a retired World War II pilot who joined the Naval Air Reserve and retired as a vice admiral. Gaba said his uncle was the best man at his wedding. Edward Gaba died in 2016.

"It’s an honor to come to the ceremony and remember these people who gave their lives for this country," Robert Gaba said. "I can remember the guys I served with, it was a small unit of 29 people, and I see them almost on a constant basis. We’re still friends, we talk, we exchange Christmas cards. If we’re in the city where the other person lives, we go visit."

John Cohan, 63, of Huntington, has several family members who served in the military, including his son James Tyler Cohan, 28, who served in Afghanistan starting at age 18 and now is learning to become a horseshoe farrier.

For John Cohan, a Civil Air Patrol member, the wreath-laying ceremony was a great way to keep the memory of those who died in battle alive.

"It’s about keeping their name alive," Cohan said. "It’s important because some of these people died on the battlefield, and it’s important that we keep this going and honor our veterans because of what they gave and what they sacrificed."

Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV Credit: Newsday

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