Alumni organization honors the lives of Rutgers veterans
On Dec. 16, University alumni decorated the wreaths of Rutgers veterans buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C as part of the tradition of the national Wreaths Across America organization.
Jim Simos, a Rutgers alumnus who started the volunteer-driven organization two years ago, said that there are approximately 11,500 Rutgers alumni living in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan area, some of which are members of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Rutgers Alumni Association.
He said he came up with the idea while looking for a community service project. He knew about Wreaths Across America and thought he could collaborate with them to decorate the graves of veteran alumni buried in the cemetery.
“So basically, you know it’s well publicized, it’s obviously a very good cause, and then I found out there were other colleges that are doing it, like Notre Dame and Michigan and Penn State,” Simos said.
One Saturday every December, Wreaths Across America delivers wreaths, made in Maine, to every veteran cemetery across the country — Arlington is among the largest with 400,000 graves, he said.
Every veteran gets a wreath, but Simos and the alumni decorate these wreaths with Rutgers and American flags.
“The alumni people in New Brunswick sent down Rutgers flags and we bought some American flags and we basically put a Rutgers flag and an American flag in the wreath and then we photographed it and then we uploaded the photographs — that was the beginning of it,” Simos said.
When they first started, about five or six volunteers assisted to find the graves of Rutgers veterans. The biggest question, he said, was learning how to locate the correct graves.
Simos said that in November 2015, the University provided them with a list of 1,500 people who were Rutgers alumni, had served in the military and were deceased. The next step was searching all of those names on the Arlington National Cemetery website one by one.
“My father was a veteran, my father was a Rutgers alumnus and my father is deceased, and his name wasn’t on the list. So obviously the list didn’t have everybody, but anyway we found about 50 graves,” he said.
Turnout was low the following year due to an ice storm that struck the area. Only three or four volunteers showed up, but by the end of the night, the group was still able to decorate the graves they were looking for.
In 2017, the group's efforts went viral. Their work received coverage and support from numerous outlets including the Rutgers Business School, WRSU and The Star-Ledger. A video featuring their work gained 25,000 views, he said.
“And what happened basically is we got about another 10, 15 families that came forth and said ‘My father’s buried here. I can’t (believe) you're doing this, this is wonderful,’” Simos said.
He said that this resulted in 25 volunteers turning out in 2017, about five times more than they had seen in previous years. The group hopes to expand their efforts following this year, they are looking for more graves to decorate and want to collect biographical information for each person.
Simos said that the organization wants to expand, they are interested in honoring Rutgers alumni who served in the Vietnam War and are on the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“This is the one day a year that brings out the absolute best in everyone,” Simos said.