Honoring vets with wreaths

91-year-old Joan Jones works year-round to contribute to Wreaths Across America Day

KEYSTONE HEIGHTS -- Each year on Dec. 15, veterans at each national cemetery in the U.S. are honored on Wreaths Across America Day. And each year on that day, 91-year-old Joan Jones ensures veterans buried in Keystone Heights get the same honor.

During the past 14 years, Jones has been the driving force for the honoring of U.S. veterans in Keystone Heights. This year alone, Jones and the Wreaths Across America organization plan to place wreaths on 700 local gravesites during a ceremony. 

Jones sells the wreaths year-round, parting with wreaths for $15 for one or $30 for three.

Local veteran groups, the Keystone Heights McDonald’s, and other local businesses also support Jones to ensure she makes all the wreaths she needs as well, as hold the ceremony she believes veterans deserve.

“I try to have a different program each year to make the veterans happy,” Jones said. “We have had motorcycle groups and guest speakers come by. This year, I want to have a children’s choir sing the national anthem.”

Originally from Bendigo, Australia, Jones has devoted her life to honoring veterans she said made such a large impact on her life and her home country during World War II. 

“That is one woman who loves this country, and she wasn’t even born here,” fellow volunteer Pauline Carter said about Jones. “She is just so dedicated.” 

With her father stationed in Africa during the war, Jones found work with the U.S. Navy in Melbourne, Australia. During this time Jones, volunteered up to three days a week at the local USO, starting the beginning of the intertwinement of her life with the U.S. and its veterans. 

After meeting her first husband, a U.S. Navy officer, in Australia, Jones arrived in San Francisco in 1946 via a “War Bride Ship”, a U.S. Navy war ship that was used to help immigrate brides and families of U.S. soldiers who wed during the war years. 

The U.S. military gave Jones a new job, a new familyand a new country to call home. It also gave her devotion. 

“When I got here and I had all this time, I wanted to do something for the American GIs,” Jones said. “I mean, that is me. That is who I am. That is my story.”

Jones said the urge to help veterans was in her head so much she started dreaming about it.

“I had a dream of building a monument to thank the American GIs for what they did for us in Australia during the war. What I was dreaming was a veterans memorial pathway,” Jones said. “I got up and drew everything up in the middle of the night and took the idea to the next city council meeting. The night they voted on it. They voted unanimously to build it.” 

Jones dream came true, and in 2005, the Keystone Heights Cemetery Veterans Memorial Pathway was born. For the next 11 years, Jones held popular Veterans Day and Fourth of July ceremonies at the pathway. 

But in 2016, Jones’ dream would be taken from her. “The city manager called me into his office and told me that since I was a volunteer and not an employee of the city, they were no longer allowing me to work at the cemetery,” Jones said. “I never got over it, really.”

By this time, Jones had already been helping with the arrangement of wreaths by volunteering at the Jacksonville National Cemetery with a friend in 2009. It was in 2011 that Jones decided to take the tradition to her home city of Keystone Heights. 

And after being removed from the memorial pathway, Jones told the city they could not take the wreaths from her. 

“I told them, ‘You better leave me alone with that,’ because that is from congress,” Jones said. “They don’t touch me too much now because they know I am going to battle them. I am not afraid of them.”

Every year since starting the tradition, Jones and others make and package up to 2,000 wreaths to give to local cemeteries and churches to help honor veterans. Jones even has volunteers who walk the cemetery grounds themselves to count and mark the veterans graves. 

“The veterans love this. They say they had never seen anything more beautiful,” Jones said. “The first year we did it, when they saw all of the yellow and red with the green, it was just wonderful to see. I just love helping them.”