|By Carley Dangona
The Massachusetts Veterans' Memorial Cemetery in Agawam as it appeared after the 2012 Wreaths Across America ceremony.
Reminder Publications submitted photo
AGAWAM Lifelong resident Jeff Castonguay is putting his legs to use, literally, to raise money to purchase a wreath for each of the more than 6,500 graves in the 61-acre Massachusetts Veterans' Memorial Cemetery in Agawam.
Castonguay, a 46-year-old tri-athlete, plans to bike 10,000 miles over the course of 2013 to achieve his goal. He started accumulating miles Jan. 1 and has currently reached 2,700 miles. He spends time in hour-long spin classes, on a stationary bike in his home and outside on his road or triathlon bikes. Sometimes he rides alone and other times with friends. He plans to reach his goal prior to the December Wreaths Across America (WAA) ceremony.
"I love my country," he said. "Veterans have always had a special place in my heart." Castonguay explained that his family has volunteered at the cemetery to place the wreaths and described last year's display as "sporadic." He would like to see the grounds "blanketed" by wreaths. "More can be done and I'm going to do what I can," he said.
Castonguay said that he is focused on the task. When asked what he would tell others who want to honor veterans, he said, "There are thousands of veterans around the world. We need to remember the service of these men and women that gave their lives keeping us safe. As we speak, there are men and women fighting for us."
While not a veteran, his brother Craig served in the U.S. Air Force. Castonguay lost his brother five years ago and said that his memory inspires the rides.
Brian Willette, veteran of the Connecticut Army National Guard and commander of the Military Order of The Purple Heart Western Massachusetts Chapter 875, appreciates Castonguay's effort. In 2012, Willette formed a fundraising group for the local WAA effort and increased the amount of wreaths from approximately 150 in 2011 to more than 1,100 in 2012. He only had six weeks to accomplish the task.
"Last year there were 200 to 300 people involved in the project, where only 20 to 25 people had been involved in past years," he said. "Sponsors such as Columbia Gas, all the area Veterans of Foreign Wars and private donors contributed to the effort."
Willette said, "Almost everyone has a connection to that cemetery." He cited the WAA motto, "Remember, Teach, Honor" as the main reason for the efforts. "The participants are encouraged to pause, read the stone and then place the wreath."
He that the WAA event is an important history lesson, especially for children. Willette said that the placing of the wreaths honors those who served and serves as a "teaching moment" for those who may not be old enough to remember past wars.
Fundraising has begun for this December's ceremony. He said, "We're already geared up for 2013. We started receiving donations in January."
Interested donors and sponsors can visit www.milesforwreaths.com for more information.
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