By Bill Miller and Jessica Easthope
BAY RIDGE — On Monday morning, Dec. 19, three retired NYPD police officers walked slowly to a pair of aged, solitary tombstones in the Revolutionary War Cemetery behind Xaverian High School and respectfully laid Christmas wreaths on them.
Next, they drove to Green-Wood Cemetery, where they placed wreaths at the final resting places of people, including a Civil War veteran, who served in the military.
A couple of days earlier, they were at St. Peter’s Cemetery on Staten Island, where they placed circlets of Christmas greens at the graves of Father Vincent Capodanno and Pvt. Joseph Merrell. Both men were natives of the borough and recipients of the Medal of Honor who died in combat — Merrell, an infantryman in World War II, and Father Capodanno, a Navy chaplain in Vietnam.
But the three retirees were just getting started. On Wednesday, they planned to leave more wreaths at the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale.
The nonprofit group Wreaths Across America, based in Harrington, Maine, provides wreaths to brighten gravesites throughout the U.S. of those who served the nation in uniform. They coordinate ceremonies at more than 3,400 locations across the United States. People like the three former cops do the legwork.
“I’m just a volunteer,” said a humble Louis DeMarco of Brooklyn, who is retired from the New York Police Department. “I focus on the U.S. military, plus the police officers and people from the NYPD who have been killed in the line of duty or have passed on.”
Helping him on this blustery morning were two retirees from Staten Island. Garry Dugan, a former homicide detective, began working for the NYPD in 1968, the same year as DeMarco. Joining them was David Brooks, a retired NYPD sergeant.
All three are Catholic, but their goal was to bring wreaths to the graves of veterans or cops of any faith because, they said, all were willing to sacrifice for their community and country.
Although retired, Dugan and Brooks still keep busy schedules, yet they dropped everything to help with the wreaths.
“It’s a sense of pride to do this, to let people know that these heroes are not forgotten,” Dugan said.
“Life goes on, and I think they’re rewarded in heaven,” Brooks said. “And I think they’re examples for us to follow.”
DeMarco was shot in the line of duty in 1978. He recovered and retired in 1984.
“I loved being a cop,” said a weeping DeMarco. “I love this city. I love what we did. And those young kids out there today — they got a tough job.”
Some recipients were both veterans and cops, like officers Rocco Laurie and Gregory Foster. They were walking the beat together in January 1972 in Manhattan’s East Village when assassins ambushed and murdered them.
Both Laurie and Foster served in the U.S. Marine Corps with combat tours in Vietnam before joining the NYPD. Their deaths marked a tragic sign of the times. Laurie was white, Foster was black, and their killers belonged to the militant Black Liberation Army.
In 2018, DeMarco attended a graveside ceremony for Foster at Long Island Cemetery. The occasion was the delayed, posthumous awarding of the Silver Star medal for his heroism in Vietnam.
There, DeMarco met representatives of Wreaths Across America and purchased his first wreaths — including one for Foster.
In 2021, DeMarco raised enough money to fund 160 wreaths from Wreaths Across America. This year, he raised enough for 200 wreaths — around $3,000.
Some of those who donate request wreaths for the graves of their loved ones who served. DeMarco’s list also includes people he knew in the department, like one of his mentors, Officer Mario Tesoriero, a Marine from the Korean War era, whose grave is at Green-Wood.
Locating some of the graves is tough. In a vast cemetery like Green-Wood, there are many turns and bends in the roads, which makes map reading very difficult. Also, it’s hard to read some graves with inscriptions weathered by wind and rain.
Still, the three retirees pressed on against the chilly winds, steep slopes, and slippery grass. Sometimes they passed the grave of someone they didn’t know but who, according to the gravestone inscription, was clearly a veteran.
That’s how Maj. Jean Victor DeHanne (1834-1904) got a wreath on Monday.
The retired cops — who at that point were joined by another volunteer, John McDevitt — didn’t know the major’s story and could only speculate he might have served in the Civil War.
They were correct. In 1862, DeHanne enlisted in Brooklyn as a private in the 176th Infantry Regiment. He was discharged a year later but returned to service in 1864 as an assistant surgeon serving in Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody “March to the Sea.”
Later, Maj. DeHanne was a U.S. Army surgeon during the Indian Wars and served in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Not knowing any of that, the volunteers went through their routine, placing the wreath and uttering a few words.
“Thank you for your service, Major,” DeMarco said. “Rest in peace, God bless you, and Merry Christmas.”