A gift that keeps on giving
December 18, 2007
Once upon a time the owner of a holiday wreath-making business in Maine brought his leftover product to a place he had visited as a boy and got others to help him place them on the graves of Soldiers.
Saturday he returned as he has every year since 1992 and, with the help of some 3,000 volunteers, placed the simple balsam wreaths on 10,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
"It's the start of the season," Arlington Superintendent Jack Metzler Jr. said as two semi-trailer trucks were offloaded with boxes of the wreaths that the employees of the Worcester Wreath Company assembled - fresh balsam branches on a wire frame with a large red ribbon and a small tag, signed by Morrill Worcester, that reads:
"'On behalf of the hundreds of volunteers at Worcester Wreath Company and around the world it is an honor and a privilege to place this wreath on the grave of a TRUE AMERICAN HERO.' - Morill Worcester, President."
Thousands more felt the same. Cars backed up on the roads leading to the cemetery long before the 9 a.m. start time, and most who came were content to take one or two wreaths at a time so that the experience of participation could be shared.
Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr., the commanding general of the Military District of Washington, the Army command that oversees operation of the two Army's cemeteries, made note that the participants came from "all across the United States, feeling it as a particular pride and honor to pay homage at the cemetery today."
The Harrington, Maine, for-profit business and its holiday-wreath supporters formed a charitable corporation this year, Wreaths Across America, to harness the impulses of those wanting to expand the seasonal tribute or bring it to veterans cemeteries near them or to where their loved ones rest.
The number of donated wreaths going to Arlington, usually some 4 to 5 thousand, doubled this year to 10,000. The company sent some 1,800 ceremonial wreaths as well to more than 200 other state and federal national veterans cemeteries across the country, to 24 veterans cemeteries in foreign lands, and "to U.S. ships sailing in all seven seas."
Another 2,500 went to the Maine Veterans Cemetery at Togus.
With wreaths donated through participation in the Wreaths Across America, Morrill estimated the number of veterans graves decorated to be in the vicinity of 35,000.
At Arlington, the seemingly vast numbers of wreaths were laid in the first hour, primarily in Section 33, the hillside that stretches south from Eisenhower Drive between the administrative building and McClellan Gate.
Five-year-old Charlie, there with his dad, placed a wreath for a private from Florida, 32 years old when he fought with the Rainbow Division in World War I, receiving the Purple Heart. After saluting, as taught by his father, he read the Soldier's name, John J. Murphy. "A good Irish name," his father affirmed.
Chris Snyder, assistant principal of Woodstown High School, Woodstown, N.J., learned about the wreath project and wrote to find out how his school might participate. "A wonderful cause, a great event," he declared. The high school's theme this year, "Mission Possible," is exemplified by military service. He and three other veterans who teach at the school led a contingent from the town, including Snyder's wife and children, both bundled up in an enclosed pram. Harry Burman, a teacher at the school, Vietnam veteran and Silver Star recipient, laid the wreath made by students of the high school's Future Farmers of America club shortly after the noon changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He and three others chosen for the honor had their wreaths placed before the unknowns of both world wars, the Korean War and the slab dedicated to the missing in action.
Civil Air Patrol cadets came down from Maine for the Arlington event, while chapters in other states took part in observances at regional cemeteries.
Dressed in their fatigue uniforms, they worked alongside Soldiers from the Old Guard, other military volunteers and members of the Maine State Society to get the wreaths out of the trucks and boxes and into the hands of the many who wanted them.
Gina Barnhurst came over from Section 60 where she had been decorating the grave of her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Herzberg, and the holly tree that grows beside his grave, and added the wreath to the display.
"I didn't know this was happening today," she said, "I usually just come by myself." While there she exchanged greetings with others she has come to know through shared loss. Her son, a graduate of Severna Park High School, was killed by sniper fire in Iraq little more than a year ago.
There are 300,000 buried at Arlington, but the graves of the most recently killed, the warriors of Iraq and Afghanistan, were nearly all decorated by early afternoon.
The process of remembering the veterans by decorating their graves will continue in the days to come, Metzler said. "We'll have a stream of florists' trucks coming in and out of the gate all next week," he predicted.