Christmas is an especially difficult time for anyone grieving for lost loved ones. Try adding a crippling killer virus into that mix. That is the tragic reality of 2020.
Even though the traditional ceremonies attended by thousands went virtual this year, more than 1.7 million holiday wreaths were placed against grave markers of fallen service men and women.
Normally, the fallen are remembered on Memorial Day, but thanks to a Maine family and over hundreds of thousand donors and volunteers, on Dec. 19 those wreaths were laid on the tombstones of our fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen/women.
The most stunning view of the wreaths is at Arlington National Cemetery where the panoramic view of its rolling hills with its white grave markers perfectly aligned contain 250,000 Christmas wreaths.
Since the program started in 1992, more than 2,500 burial grounds across the nation and American national cemeteries in foreign lands have joined. In Washington state, more than two dozen memorial parks from Walla Walla to Port Orchard and Sequim participate.
There are more than 50,000 veterans’ graves in which wreaths could be placed. Over half of them are at Tahoma’s National Cemetery. In Vancouver, Wa., the goal has been to place 2,000 at Evergreen Memorial Gardens.
Here is how it started:
When Morrill Worcester was a 12 year-old paper boy for the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, he won a trip to Washington D.C. His visit to Arlington National Cemetery made an indelible impression that stayed with him throughout his life.
Years later, Worcester realized that he could use his family business to honor the hundreds of thousands of veterans laid to rest in Arlington.
Founded in 1971, Worchester Wreath Co. of Harrington, Maine, is a family-owned business which grows balsam fir in its forests. It has become one of the largest wholesalers of holiday balsam products providing fresh Maine wreaths, trees and centerpieces.
Wreaths Across America (WAA) sprang from a Worchester gesture in 1992 when surplus wreaths were shipped to Washington, D.C. They were placed on headstones in an older section of the Arlington National Cemetery — the most forgotten part of the burial grounds.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, interest in the project spiked. In fact, the Pentagon, which was struck by a jetliner on that day, is within eyesight of Arlington.
In 2005, when WAA appeared on the internet with a sobering photo of thousands of snow-covered wreaths on Arlington headstones, interest and donations mushroomed.
Wreaths Across America is a privately funded charity that accepts no government money. Delivery of a million wreaths is quite an undertaking this December especially when much of our country is suffering from frigid arctic temperatures, icy roads and blinding blizzards.
Over 100 trucking companies voluntarily load their semi-trailers and their drivers fan out across America. They absorb all of the delivery costs. At Arlington, for example, in a non-virus pandemic year, thousands of volunteers line the road waving flags as the trucks roll up to the entrance.
Morrill Worchester told the Bangor Daily News his first trip to Arlington National Cemetery helped him remember those who gave everything to keep America free.
Today, the Wreaths Across America program helps us remember, as well.
The wreaths provide some comfort to families and friends of America’s fallen. They also remind us not to forget those suffering with life-long mental and physical disabilities from military service.
“We always say that a person dies twice,” said Bre Kingsbury from Wreaths Across America. “The first time when they take their last breath … and then the second is when their name is spoken out loud for the very last time.”
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.