EDWARDSVILLE, Pa. — Zachary Hunter remembers the moment the photo was taken. It's now hanging on the so-called Warrior Tree in Edwardsville's Veterans Park.
It was November of 2013, and he was headed off to infantry school for the Marine Corps. He hugged his mom goodbye, not knowing the next time he'd see her.
"In that picture, I was trying to hold it together but watching my mom break down in that moment, for the first time, it really hit me what I was doing. So these kinds of emotions are really strong. I remember crying immensely on the bus, just trying to cover up my eyes so no one else would see it. So being able to see it now, years removed, it's incredible to see it every year," Hunter said.
The 12-foot tree that lights up the park every holiday season began as a 3-foot tree in Zachary's house. His mom put it up while her son was serving in Afghanistan, and soon family and friends wanted to add photos of their loved ones who couldn't be home for the holidays.
"We had too many stars one year, and she said, 'Alright, maybe we need a bigger tree.'"
Every star on the tree is a different color. Each means something different.
Blue represents an active duty vet, for example. Red is for retired.
"All the gold ones are all the family members and friends that we have that are no longer with us."
Like 19-year-old Airman 1st Class Shannon Purcell, who helped Zachary decorate the tree the year he came home from Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately, the next year, she passed away, so stars like this are really important for someone who obviously can't have someone come home ever again."
Zachary's father, Ceferino Declet, humbly refers to himself as the "maintenance man" for the Warrior Tree. He's proud to have so many veterans in his family.
"The reason why I do this is I got lucky. My dad got to come home on Christmases. But my brother John didn't. And [Zachary] missed a couple. And it does mean a lot to veterans. They're out there for us, for the family."
Zachary and his family say anyone is welcome to come and add an ornament to the tree throughout the holiday season.
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