Wreaths Across America: Honoring U.S. Veterans During the Holidays
A few weeks ago, I drove five hours each way to attend the funeral of a dear friend’s mother. After the mass, I wavered about staying for the ceremony at the cemetery. Despite traveling halfway across the state, I couldn’t bear joining my friend’s family for the final goodbye to her mother at the cemetery and abashedly jumped in my car for the long drive home. Since my own mother died in 2008, I’ve had a difficult time setting foot in a cemetery.
So on Saturday, December 12, with great trepidation, I drove a mere five miles from my house to the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies. I was here to learn more about Wreaths Across America, a national campaign that a FedEx customer started, and for the first time, we were helping out with inkind shipping.
With shaky legs, I approached the crowd of hundreds which had gathered for the annual wreath laying ceremony as part of National Wreaths Across America day. In the crowd were families, children and many veterans, some dressed in snug, but highly decorated uniforms.
Despite the tears of family members and the somberness of the lone bugler playing Taps, the mood following the official ceremony was fairly upbeat as young children scampered to grab a wreath to place on one of the many white marble headstones. My hesitancy at visiting a cemetery abated as I watched tiny Cub Scouts gingerly place the fragrant balsam wreaths on the graves. This vision made me think that Morrill Worcester, the man who started this mission to honor U.S. veterans during the holidays, would be so very pleased to see all of the children participating in this important event with origins tracing back to his own childhood.
As a young boy, Morrill won a trip to Washington D.C. which initiated his interest in Arlington National Cemetery. Fast forward to 1992 when his family business, Worcester Wreath Company, the world’s largest holiday balsam decoration producer, had an excess of wreaths. Morrill came up with the idea to have them placed on the graves at Arlington National Cemetery to honor fallen soldiers.
Now 17 years later, Morrill’s dream of honoring veterans has expanded to nearly 170,000 wreaths being sent to more than 400 cemeteries both here in the U.S. and abroad. Today, thousands of volunteers participate in wreath laying ceremonies on the second Saturday of each December, which the U.S. Congress has officially proclaimed as Wreaths Across America Day.
I spoke with Morrill a few days before the ceremony as he was making his annual trip from his home in Harrington, Maine to Arlington National Cemetery. The fact that this is the busiest time of the year for his company doesn’t deter him from making this trip into quite an adventure. Joining him on this voyage of nearly 700 miles were more than 50 vehicles.
During the weeklong trip south, the convoy was scheduled to make 21 stops, mostly at veteran’s homes and schools. The visits to veterans were to thank them for their years of service, while the detours at schools were to educate youngsters on the sacrifices veterans made for our country.
“At schools, our number one goal is to make an impression on kids,” said Morrill. “They don’t forget what we teach them about veterans. We really make a difference.” Morrill added that “teach really should come first in our mission, which is to remember, honor and teach.”
After a week on the road, the last stop before Arlington National Cemetery was at the Pentagon. To recognize those who died on September 11, Morrill provided wreaths for ceremonies to honor each victim who perished at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and on United Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pa.
Ending at Arlington National Cemetery where Morrill’s inspiration began so many years before, the convoy was joined by 6,000 volunteers who placed 16,000 wreaths on the graves of the many men and women who fought for our country’s freedom.
While the crowd at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies was notably much smaller – the mission was the same – to remember, honor and teach.
It was there that I met Patrick Ogburn who was accompanied by his young sons and other members of their Cub Scout unit. Knowing Morrill’s goal of teaching children, I was interested in knowing what brought Patrick and his sons out to the cemetery.
This was the first time Patrick and the young scouts participated in the wreath laying ceremony. Like Morrill, Patrick thought it was important to educate the children, which is exactly what he did as his sons lay wreaths on the marble headstones. Kneeling down next to the graves, he quietly pointed out to the boys the branch of the military where the veteran served and the wars in which they fought.
A veteran of the Air Force, Patrick intends to make this an annual tradition with the scouts.
With the support of younger veterans like Patrick and his children, it’s possible that Morrill’s dream to decorate every grave, every year of every veteran will soon be a reality.