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Volunteers collect wreaths from headstones of veterans for recycling

Volunteers pick up wreaths at Long Island National

Volunteers pick up wreaths at Long Island National Cemetery in Pinelawn on Saturday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Hundreds of volunteers from across Long Island cleared thousands of wreaths from the headstones of veterans at national cemeteries Islandwide Saturday to dispose of them in an eco-friendly way.

Those volunteers picked up roughly 80,000 wreaths from Long Island National Cemetery in Pinelawn and Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton as part of “Wreaths Across America,” a nonprofit organization working with waste-to-energy company Covanta to dispose of seasonal wreaths.

Roughly 16 members of the Knights On Bikes Rockville Centre Diocese in Deer Park, a Knights of Columbus riding group, were among the volunteers who arrived on the rainy morning at Long Island National Cemetery. Kevin McGill, the group’s president, said the wreath program was special to the club’s members because several of them were either veterans or had family and loved ones who served in the armed forces.

“It makes me feel good that all of these guys here at one point or another fought for me, for my family, for us, and now we can do a little bit to give back to them and their families,” said McGill, whose grandfathers had served in the Navy and Air Force.

 Manny Marano, the group’s vice president, said he was proud to help provide any services to veterans. “It’s the least we can do to honor their sacrifice for this country,” he said. 

The wreaths collected Saturday — double the 40,000 wreaths picked up in 2019 because Calverton National Cemetery was added — would be processed at Covanta’s facilities in Babylon, Hempstead, Huntington and Islip to turn them into clean energy for Island homes and businesses. The recovered metal frames also will be recycled, according to Covanta officials.

Sue Jehlen, director of Long Island National Cemetery, said the help provided by volunteers who picked up wreaths helped the cemetery’s small staff, who tend to more than 250,000 grave sites at the 365-acre cemetery.

“This is a huge help to us because we only have 26 staff here, so to pick up something like this, it takes all the volunteers,” Jehlen said.

The energy company also provides a yearlong flag disposal program in which it works with veteran groups to properly and respectfully dispose of old and worn U.S. flags. The company had been working to deepen ties with Island veterans through such programs, said Maureen Early, Covanta's community affairs specialist.

"It's the most iconic symbol of our nation, this flag, and we've taken it very seriously," Early said. The company studied proper flag disposal techniques for more than a year before implementing the program, she said

John Baptisto Fiore, commander of VFW Post 1819 in Port Washington, said the flag program was dear to him because VFW posts collecting flags for proper disposal lacked the space needed to do so. Without staff or resources, veterans started seeing people disposing of flags in garbage cans, which Fiore said offended them.

“The veteran community was more than pleased when they heard about this program. It’s either that, or they go in the garbage, so when you look at the alternative, we would prefer this, and the respect [the flag] is given,” Fiore said.

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