Wreaths Across America

By Karen St. John

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An evergreen wreath, decorated with a single red ribbon, is carefully placed upon the grave of the fallen serviceman or woman who lay buried in the national cemetery.  It is a simple gesture, unbounded in its respect for the memory of the service to our country, and profound in its reverence for the one who gave it. 

Multiply that one, simple gesture by 10,000 wreaths for Arlington National Cemetery, 2,500 wreaths to Togus National Cemetery in Maine, and thousands of additional wreaths to over 350 veterans’ cemeteries and monuments, enacted by 100,000 volunteers in all fifty states, Washington, D.C., and some areas outside the United States, and you have the “Wreaths Across America” project.

Began in 1992 as the “Arlington Project,” the “Wreaths Across America” project of 2009 accomplished the laying of 161,000 wreaths, in 405 participating sites located across all fifty states, at several locations in Iraq, and at all U.S. national cemeteries on foreign soil.   The majority of wreaths were sponsored by individuals, businesses, and groups from communities nationwide.  It is estimated that over 7,500 people were in attendance at Arlington National Cemetery and 15,000 at Houston National Cemetery.  This year for the first time, the leadership team of the American Gold Star Mothers, mothers who have lost a son or daughter in the service to our country (http://www.goldstarmoms.com/), traveled with the wreaths on the 750-mile journey from Maine to Arlington.  One father joined the mothers. 

Over 3,000 wreaths were placed at Battery Park in New York City, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to honor the memory of the victims of 9/11. 

The project extended across the border into Canada, too.  A wreath-laying ceremony was held at Ferry Point Bridge to honor our Canadian allies, and especially, the Canadian citizens who served in our U. S. Armed Services.   

How did this project start?

It All Began with a Twelve-Year-Old Newspaper Delivery Boy 

Twelve-year old Morrill Worcester, a newspaper boy for Maine’s Bangor Daily News, knew it was the chance of a lifetime when he won a trip to Washington, DC.  Among all the historic sites he visited, it was Arlington National Cemetery that moved him the most.  Even at such a young age, the newspaper boy could sense the valor, honor and sacrifices those veterans made in service to our country.  

Worcester grew up and became a successful businessman with his own wreath company.  But the reaction he had as a young boy visiting Arlington Cemetery never left him.   It would not be until 1992, however, that he would share those deep feelings with other people who would eventually play key roles in establishing a national wreath project.

Can’t Keep a Good Idea Down 

The 1992 holiday season had come to an end and Worcester found himself with an excess of unsold wreaths.  Maybe it was because Christmas always brings out the kid in all of us; or, maybe it was the U.S, flag blowing in the breeze.  Recalling our nation’s fallen servicemen and women at Arlington National Cemetery, Worcester suddenly knew exactly what he would do with his unsold wreaths.  He contacted his senator, Olympia Snowe, and asked for her help in getting his stack of wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery.  Senator Snowe came through and arranged for the wreaths to be placed in a special section at Arlington: one of the older sections of the cemetery that was receiving fewer visitors with each passing year.

As plans were made and word began to spread about the wreaths for Arlington, others wanted to get involved.  Among the first was the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts, which gathered with members of the community to decorate each wreath with red, hand-tied bows.  James Prout, owner of the trucking and warehouse businesses of Blue Bird Ranch, Inc., generously provided transportation to carry the wreaths from Maine to Virginia.  Members of the Maine State Society of Washington, DC and John Metzler, Jr, Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, volunteered their time to help organize the wreath laying, which would incorporate a special ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

Over 5,000 wreaths were laid upon the oldest graves of our nation’s heroes.

And So It Began 

Whatever caused Worcester to think back to Arlington Cemetery that day gave no hint of what was to come.  For it would be that moment and on that day, that what would eventually become known as the “Wreaths Across America” project, was born.   

Worcester continued to donate wreaths, and the groups continued to volunteer their time for the wreath-laying ceremony.  In 2004, members of the Maine Wing of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) joined in at Arlington National Cemetery, in what would become an annual event for the cadets.     

Although the efforts of Worcester and his gracious volunteers had remained little known outside Arlington Cemetery since its start in 1992, the advances in technology would soon prove powerful enough to make the wreath-laying project almost a household word.  

By 2005, the Internet had become a major part of most Americans lives. When a random photo of the red-ribboned wreaths adorned on the headstones amid snow-covered grounds at Arlington Cemetery was placed on the Internet, it instantly became a national hit.  Directors of national cemeteries across the nation spotted the photo and requested wreaths for the graves of their state’s heroes.   

Unable to donate such a large quantity of wreaths but still wanting to contribute, Worcester did the next best thing:  he filled every request with seven wreaths, symbolizing the number of military branches and POW/MIA.  He called his extended efforts the “Wreaths Across America” project.  To Worcester, it was a perfect way to promote his goals of “Remember, Honor, Teach.” 

Community and business groups across the nation soon learned of the project and volunteered to help lay wreaths at their national cemeteries.   

A key group offering their services was the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR).  The PGR is a diverse group of motorcycle riders who have unwavering respect for those who risk their lives in service to our country.  PGR volunteered to provide an escort for the wreaths that were destined for the Virginia cemetery. 

The United Parcel Service (UPS) generously donated all shipping expenses to each of the 150 state and national cemeteries and monuments across the country that were participating in the wreath-laying ceremony.  

Requests for the wreaths continued to grow with each passing year and in 2007, Worcester established the “Wreaths Across America” project as a not-for profit 501c3 organization.  Only a year later, over 300 locations held wreath laying ceremonies in every state, Puerto Rico and the twenty-four cemeteries located overseas.   The wreaths placed on veterans’ graves were lovingly brought to each cemetery, escorted and laid by over 60,000 volunteers who were participating in the project.

In November of 2008, Maine Senator Susan Collins introduced the resolution (S RES 717) that officially designated December 13 as “Wreaths Across America Day.”  The resolution was co-sponsored by Senator Olympia Snowe.   It passed unanimously.  The wreath laying is now held annually on the second Saturday of December.  

The Project Today

The current list of volunteers for the “Wreath Across America” project is impressive.  Almost a dozen trucking companies donate its trucks to the project.  The Maine State Society of Washington D.C. continues its involvement in the project, as does the American Legion and VFW members, and UPS.  Fed Ex has joined the project as well as Annin & Company, the largest manufacturer of flags in the United States.  Annin has donated both American and service specific flags for each wreath ceremony held over 230 State and National cemeteries and monuments across the country.  

School children from the Margaret Chase Smith School in Skowhegan, Maine, were so impressed with their first visit to Arlington Cemetery that the school has made it an annual event.  Dubbed the “Red Hat Entourage,” because all the students and their chaperones wear red winter hats, the students raise money throughout the school year for the trip to honor our fallen heroes. 

The PGR, now with over 179,000 members nationally, remain in charge of escorting the tractor-trailer loads with donated wreaths from Maine to Arlington.   Other patriotic motorcycle and motor vehicle groups join them along the way.  Depending on the weather, the escorts currently number from fifty to 300.  

CAP proudly states that its cadets still “volunteer muscle and helping hands in dispensing the wreaths to the many volunteers and supporters who gather each year to participate.”   

Multiple volunteers who are not connected to the above groups, also join in the wreath laying.   

The Man and the His Company

Worcester Wreath Company continues to be a major supporter of the project.  Honoring each fallen serviceman and servicewoman has been and remains the most important priority of all the “Wreaths Across America” ceremonies.   The project’s web site (http://www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/), now carries a personal message from Morrill Worcester himself:   

“…the many phone calls, email, and letters of thanks…(provide) the inspiration for all of us to renew our commitment to honor the men and women of the armed forces who have served, and those who are currently serving our country. To each, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we owe unwavering support and a profound debt of gratitude for preserving the way of life we all enjoy here in the United States of America.”

Additionally, there is a passage from the project’s latest newsletter that thanks the veterans again.  In so doing, it offers our servicemen and women a most poignant reminder: 

If you’ve ever had any doubt about whether people will remember your service and sacrifice – just google Wreaths Across America and you will see thousands of photos, videos, and blogs about what you mean to us. Thank you all and God Bless.” 

We all know of someone who is currently serving in the military.  Most of us feel concern and grief over the human loss from the current wars.   Some of us have lost loved ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.  Many of us want to do something we can see, feel or touch, that will signal to all our troops that whether they are near us or far away, they are always in our hearts, our prayers and our hopes for peace. 

If you are one of the many, the “Wreaths Across America” project may be what you are looking for.   Wreath sponsorships are available online.   A complete list of participating locations is available on the web site at www.WreathsAcrossAmerica.org. 

It seems fitting to end any article upon the “Wreaths Across America” project with a few words from the American Poet, Thomas Bailey Aldrich: 

“With the tears a Land hath shed

Their graves should ever be green.”

 

 

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One Response to “Wreaths Across America”

  1. Great and inspirational holiday story. The wreaths are a beautiful and simple tribute to every American hero who died in service to our country’s freedom. Though I haven’t commented in past, I read your blog frequently and wanted to say all the best for the New Year!

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