As she listened to the national anthem at Beaufort National Cemetery on Saturday, Nancy Gass swayed her daughter in her arm while she held her other hand over her heart.
Her son, 2, sitting beside her in a stroller, began to stretch his arms and kick his feet. He wanted to be held, too.
But Nancy Gass, 32, could only hold one child at a time since there was no one with her to help.
Her husband — Girard David Gass Jr. — was buried there three months ago.
A few minutes later, after six ceremonial wreaths were laid as part of the national Wreaths Across America event, she laid one of her own on the grave of her husband’s grandparents. She then walked a few rows down to do the same for him.
“I want to do it,” her 2-year-old, Charlie, said.
“OK, we can do it together,” Nancy Gass responded as they lowered the wreath to the grass.
Loved ones, veterans and visitors laid wreaths on 4,527 graves at the Beaufort cemetery Saturday. Others did the same at Six Oaks Cemetery on Hilton Head Island.
At her husband’s grave, Nancy Gass knelt beside the flowers she brought a few weeks before, when she made the trek from Florence for the first time. She held her daughter, 1-year-old Stella, and read aloud the words on the stone.
“Those who risk going too far know how far they can go.”
‘HE WAS MY HERO’
Girard David Gass Jr. died of a heart attack on Oct. 3 at 33, a month shy of his birthday Nov. 3 and the end of his last deployment to Afghanistan Nov. 4.
In the months since, Nancy says those around her have often commented on her strength in the face of her lost.
She doesn’t see that strength in herself.
“I feel like I can barely stand, but I do,” she said. “I didn’t choose to keep on breathing. I didn’t want to live without him, but I am.”
As many people did Saturday, she chose to focus on her husband’s life rather than his death. He became a Special Forces medical sergeant at 28 because he wanted to do something special. In Afghanistan, he eliminated 12 threats and saved six lives, including that of a team member less than a half hour before his own death.
His combat controller had fallen and struck a rock, knocking him unconscious, Nancy Gass said. Her husband carried him down the hill and treated him until he could be flown to safety. Girard Gass died soon afterward, while carrying more than 100 pounds of equipment.
“I always knew he’d be needed to carry someone because he was so big,” Nancy Gass said with a smile. “He was my hero, and it was just like him. He did everything he could until his body quit on him.”
‘WE WILL REMEMBER’
Others laying wreaths Saturday said goodbye to their loved ones years ago, among them Helen Johnson Richards, who came to remember her brother Ralph H. Johnson. The Medal of Honor recipient died in 1968 in Vietnam at age 19 after using his body to smother a grenade blast.
Others, like the father whose son died in September 2013, have fresher wounds.
Mike Dalgliesh, wearing a shirt with his son’s picture and a hat that reads “Proud father,” drove to Beaufort from Charleston. Lance Cpl. Rory Dalgliesh, a Marine who died in Afghanistan, is buried in Michigan, but Rick Dalgliesh said he still took comfort in holding one of the flags posted in a circle around the ceremony Saturday.
“We have the same thing (Wreaths Across America) in Michigan, but it’s gloomy and overcast,” Dalgliesh said. “Here, it’s nice to have the sunshine.”
Before delivering a prayer, retired Army chaplain Lt. Col. Kevin Stroop asked the hundreds gathered to be still for a moment.
“Quiet yourself to the point where you can hear a heartbeat, and then you’ll hear voices. They’re the voices of fathers, sons, daughters, mothers, husbands,” Stroop said. “They’re here. ... We will remember.”