Volunteers ensure veterans buried in the Smokies are never forgotten


Since 2020, Marilyn Childress, a US Navy veteran and president of the Veterans Heritage Site Foundation in Knoxville, Tennessee, has organized Wreaths Across America in Great Smoky Mountains National Park—working to ensure the names of veterans buried in the park are spoken aloud each year.

Volunteers with Wreaths Across America gather during the December wreath-laying event. Photo provided by Donna Silvey.

“We have a saying that a veteran dies twice: once when they physically die, and then once when their name is never said,” she explained. “This is about bringing awareness to folks to make sure that these veterans are honored and never forgotten.”

The Great Smoky Mountains organization is part of the nationwide Wreaths Across America effort, an annual mid-December event in which volunteers lay wreaths on veteran gravesites across the country to remember and pay respect for their service. When the Veterans Heritage Site Foundation formed in 2016, Childress was already coordinating this effort for the Knoxville National Cemetery. It was at a veterans’ luncheon in January 2020 that she started asking whether there was a list of all veterans buried in the nearby national park. A group had been placing flags on veteran graves in Cades Cove, but a larger-scale event had yet to take place.

Shortly afterward, a group of people interested in and knowledgeable about the park’s cemeteries formed to do a little genealogical and historical detective work. By June 2020, they’d confirmed a list of 166 veterans buried in the park—a figure that would grow to 200 by the time they placed the first wreaths in December. Volunteers can drive to a few of these graves, but most require a hike—some treks are quite short, but one site on the north shore of Fontana Lake, for example, is accessible only by a boat shuttle paired with a 17.5-mile roundtrip walk. A GPS unit comes in handy to locate the coordinates of off-trail gravesites near old homesteads.

Man hiking with wreaths attached to back
A Wreaths Across America volunteer hikes a wreath toward a remote gravesite. Photo provided by Marilyn Childress.

“That first year, we had a little opening ceremony at the Sugarlands Visitor Center,” said Childress. “It was spittin’ snow, but then folks went out and did the hiking. It was an awesome, awesome thing, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

One of these hikers is Donna Silvey, who before placing wreaths in the Smokies had sponsored some in memory of her father and stepfather, both US Navy WWII veterans, and uncle, a US Army WWII veteran who landed on the beaches of Normandy.

“When I learned they were looking for volunteers to hike in and place wreaths in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I knew I wanted to help,” said Silvey.

Having hiked the Smokies weekly, she knew she’d have the endurance to reach some of the more remote cemeteries. In fact, since Silvey started volunteering for Wreaths Across America, she’s finished her first Smokies 900-Miler map—meaning she’s hiked every trail in the park.

“My five-times great-grandparents were original settlers in what we now call Gatlinburg,” she said.  “I’ve never been able to determine how many of my ancestors gave up their homes so that we can enjoy this national park, but this is a part of my way of honoring their sacrifice.”

Man placing wreath on headstone.
Each December, volunteers work to lay a wreath on every veteran’s grave and speak that person’s name aloud. Photo provided by Donna Silvey.

Like all volunteers, for each wreath she places, Silvey speaks the veteran’s name out loud and thanks them for their service.

GSMNP partners with the Veterans Heritage Site Foundation to ensure utmost care is given to both veteran gravesites and the park’s environment during this event. A special-use permit for the project is issued each year with details on how to minimize impacts on natural, historical, and cultural resources and prevent the spread of invasive species. The wreaths used do not contain any reproductive plant parts and are free from pest infestations, blights, fungus, and disease.

“It is an absolute honor to be able to provide support to these thoughtful and devoted volunteers,” said park concessions specialist Jamie Sanders. “It renews my faith in humanity to see the dedication behind this endeavor and the sincerity of the gratitude shown for the sacrifice that veterans and their families make.”

Childress, in collaboration with Smokies cemetery experts, continues to identify additional veteran graves in the park for future wreaths. By the December 2023 event, the list had grown to 245 burial sites. Throughout this process, Childress has also learned more details of her own family lore—several veterans have turned out to be her relatives, including multi-great-grandfathers Henry Bohanan, a Revolutionary War veteran, and William Trentham, a veteran of the War of 1812.

To prevent the spread of invasive species, wreaths must be free of reproductive plant parts, pest infestations, blights, fungus, and disease. Photo provided by Marilyn Childress.

“I’m a Maples, Ogle, Bohanan, Whaley, Huskey, Trentham,” Childress chuckled. “So, when I go to the Smokies, especially in Sevier County, my feet get pulled way down in the ground. My roots are so heavy there.”

She wants to encourage families who have loved ones buried in the park to reach out if they think their relative may be a veteran. Her team can look into it and ensure any deserving names get added to the list.

“We want to make sure that 100 years from now, we’re still remembering our veterans,” Childress said. “I’ve had calls from California and South Florida, thanking us for honoring their grandfather. They didn’t realize anybody was doing that anymore, and it made them feel really good that their ancestor was being recognized. When I’m gone, I hope that somebody will remember my relatives and thank them for their service.”

Childress begins recruiting volunteers, fundraising, and planning activities for the December Wreaths Across America event in the Smokies every February. She also plans a variety of other initiatives throughout the year, such as headstone cleaning, placing flags on veteran graves for Memorial Day, and an “Honoring Our GSMNP Veterans” day for veterans of specific conflicts and their descendants. This year, that event for WWII veterans and their families will take place on June 15, 2024, at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend, Tennessee.

To contact Childress or learn more about the Veterans Heritage Site Foundation’s work with the park, visit veteransheritagesite.org.


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The Great Smokies Welcome Center is located on U.S. 321 in Townsend, TN, 2 miles from the west entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors can get information about things to see and do in and around the national park and shop from a wide selection of books, gifts, and other Smokies merchandise. Daily, weekly, and annual parking tags for the national park are also available.

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7929 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway Townsend TN 37882


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