Morrill Worcester was 12 years old when he beheld the sacred headstones that abounded the grounds of the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The headstones reflected the ultimate sacrifice made by the men and women who served in the military and took up arms to defend the Nation.
This poignant experience would have an ever-lasting effect on Worcester. Later in life, his desire to pay tribute to fallen service members would echo throughout the Nation and breathe life into the Wreaths Across America motto: Remember, Honor, Teach.
According to the WAA.org page, the Worcester Wreath Company found itself with a surplus of wreaths nearing the end of the holiday season in 1992. Worcester remembered his experience at Arlington and used the wreaths to take the first step in starting a 29-year tradition.
Each December, Wreaths Across America ensures to conduct wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and more than 2,500 additional locations in all 50 U.S. states.
Because of WAA, friends, family, veterans and service members from across the Nation ventured to the U.S. Military Academy to pay their respects to deceased service members and lay a wreath on their gravesites on Dec. 4 at the West Point Cemetery.
“I love the fact that we can combine the two entities,” Todd Crowder, a professor at the Department of Physical Education, said. “We have the West Point motto: Duty, Honor, Country and the Wreaths Across America motto: Remember, Honor, Teach. So, it’s a natural fit and as anyone who has participated can see, the wreath-laying ceremony is about remembering our fallen service members and teaching the children about their sacrifice.”
Dennis and Marion Zilinski came from New Jersey to visit their son’s gravesite, USMA Class of 2004 graduate Dennis Zilinski. Zilinski left his mark on West Point, earning several awards as a West Point swimming and diving team member, where he would eventually become team captain.
Dennis Jr. commissioned as a second lieutenant and arrived at his duty station in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
During his deployment in Bayji, Iraq, he was killed in action during a roadside bombing on Nov. 19, 2005. For 16 years, Zilinski’s family has committed to keeping his memory alive by celebrating his life and the freedom he fought to preserve for the Nation.
One of the many ways they celebrate his life is by laying a wreath upon his gravesite and sharing his story with the younger generation.
“You realize, coming to this event, that there’s a lot of people who understand that freedom isn’t free, and when you come here and see the people interact, you realize that they get it,” Marion Zilinski said. “We’ve also been down to Arlington Cemetery and it’s powerful, and what Wreaths Across America is doing is teaching the children, because eventually, I and my husband will not be here, but at least through the younger generation, my son will not be forgotten.”
Dennis Zilinski Sr. said he believes the children that left the wreaths at the gravesites are absorbed during every moment of their experience. While they may not understand the significance of what they were doing, the memories will resonate with them as they grow older.
“The kids will remember that they laid a wreath on a grave site and while they might not know who (he or she) is, they’ll get the story from someone that this service member paid the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom and everyone else’s freedom,” Zilinski Sr. said. “Right now, we’re building the groundwork for the little ones. So, the teenagers are the ones that need to be reached, and they need to get the whole picture of what Wreaths Across America is.”
Other participants like Vincent and Wendy Maiello said they attended the wreath-laying ceremony at the West Point Cemetery since its inception at USMA in 2010. Throughout the years, they would bring their two daughters, Emily and Abigail, to teach and share with them invaluable lessons on sacrifice and commitment through the chivalrous examples of fallen service members.
“I came down during the first year of this event to support and try it out, and we’ve done it every year since,” Vincent said. “It’s a tradition in our family now.”
Charli Czaczkowski was seven years old when she attended the wreath-laying ceremony for the first time. It was cold, wet and raining. There were fewer people who attended then, with about 100 graves covered with wreaths, she said.
“I’m 18 years old now, and I now know what it means to respect and honor those who sacrificed so much,” Czaczkowski added.
Emily and Abigail Maiello added they were children when they first attended a wreath-laying ceremony in 2011. They’ve made about 10 trips to the West Point Cemetery, with each experience teaching them the treasured value of freedom.
For Emily, learning that some of the service members passed away at her age made it a more heart-wrenching experience. However, it also added an extra layer of connectedness.
“As you get older, the stories stick with you more and it gets more and more impactful every year to watch Wreaths Across America grow,” Emily said. “Just seeing how much my respect and reverence for this ceremony has grown for the past 10 years (at West Point), I can only imagine how much more impactful it will be 10 years from now. I hope within that time, we can go to other places like Arlington and experience this ceremony with more people and immerse ourselves during the wreath-laying ceremony.”
For more information on the wreath-laying ceremony, visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org.