BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - On a cold and rainy Friday afternoon, a mother kneels among the headstones at Alabama National Cemetery, a little lighted Christmas tree in Hand. She carefully places it on the grave of her fallen son, a marine named Brandon.
“It’s just so beautiful it makes me feel so close to him when I come out here. Christmas has always been big for me and Brandon, he just LOVED Christmas,” explains Renee Lipsey. “So coming out here just makes me feel closer to him. His Christmas tree and all the little things I put out there.”
The tree is decorated with the things her young son loved, and pictures of him. She braved the cold and rain to make sure the tree was in place before Saturday’s Wreaths Across America ceremony.
The nationwide tribute takes place at national cemeteries around the country. The event in Montevallo, is one of the biggest.
“I don’t get to spend Christmas with Brandon anymore, my son that is buried here. Wreaths across American brings it back home for me. I feel like he’s still part of Christmas when I come out here,” explains Lipsey as she chokes back tears.
It’s been four years since her son lost a battle with PTSD, taking his own life. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and was deployed to Afghanistan. When he died, his mom knew the Alabama National Cemetery was the right resting place.
“Its beautiful out here I knew this was right here Brandon would want to be. One of his best friends is out here, who is also a Marine,” says Lipsey.
The grieving mother, now becoming an active member of events at the cemetery.
“They all know me out here, I come to every event” she says with a smile.
She will be one of the hundreds of volunteers who will help place the almost 57 hundred wreaths the graves of veterans and their families on Saturday, December 15th.
“I like helping the other volunteers put wreaths on other veterans graves that don’t have anybody to come help and put wreaths on theirs,” explains Lipsey.
The wreaths are all purchased through donations, and were even delivered to the cemetery by truck drivers who volunteered their time.
Eldon Woodie , the Director of Alabama national cemetery, says the entire event is thanks to the cemetery support committee. It’s a group of about 150 volunteers, who work tirelessly to put together ceremonies at the cemetery throughout the year.
“They do all the logistical stuff, they get a speaker, build the invitation, do the programs, get a singer, get the honor guard, all that sort of stuff, and they get mostly volunteers,” explains Woodie. “We feel like we are a part of the community, not some federal installation. We feel like we are embraced.”
The support, helps the cemetery thrive, and helps families who have loved ones resting there, feel comforted.
“Most of the folks who come have a friend a neighbor or relative buried here. I want them to feel like the final resting place for these folks is honorable and respectable and we really do care about memorializing their service,” says Woodie.
He took time to meet with Lipsey as she decorated her son’s grave. Her dedication to his memory is moving.
Lipsey says her son wanted to help others struggling with PTSD.
“He was in his 4th year of college at UAB, he wanted to be in healthcare management, so he could work at the VA and help his bothers in arms get better care. That was his dream.” She says with tears in her eyes. “He wanted to help others with PTSD, even he was fighting it himself.”
She now hopes that even in death, he still can help others. She now works to promote an awareness about PTSD.
“I didn’t even know what it was until Brandon passed, it’s a very hard hard sad journey. I am getting through it but its tough” Lipseu says through tears says Lipsey. “I later found out a lot of stuff that happened in Afghanistan he had two friends that died there. He felt really guilty about it. I got his VA papers and it said in there that he mentioned them and that he felt like he should have been one of them, and why did he get spared and they didn’t.”
She has a message for other parents of service members.
“Talk to your kids. if they seem like they are down or say they are in a slump, or they start drifting away, or go into seclusion you need to talk them. Really talk to them,” says Lipsey. “I want them to learn about PTSD if their child has ever served oversees. They need to learn what PTSD is.”
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with PTSD, you can find help and resources here.
The wreaths across America event is Saturday, December 15th at 11am. Organizers recommend arriving no later than 10:30. Shuttles will be provided from the parking lots. You can find more information on the event here.