ARLINGTON, Va. — Cindy DeCosta took her time to lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on the grave of Edmund S. Muskie, former Maine governor, U.S. secretary of state and U.S. senator. Her eyes were glossy with tears and her voice trembled as she thanked members of the Maine State Society for the opportunity they had given her.
For the first time Saturday, Cindy and her husband, Tim, who live in Windham, Maine, came to help place about 10,000 wreaths on the graves of fallen soldiers and veterans, a tradition that began 17 years ago.
“What better way is there to honor people who lost their lives for America?” she said. “The best part of it is to see people show their patriotism and take time out of their busy lives to lay a wreath. It is very emotional.”
Arlington was the last stop for the DeCostas, who left Harrington, Maine, last Sunday to accompany the two trucks carrying the wreaths given by the Worcester Wreath Co. Tim is a member of the Patriot Guard that escorted the convoy on its 750-mile trip.
“We cried all the way down here,” Cindy said.
On this cold but sunny Saturday morning, more than 3,000 people lined up under the McClellan red brick arch to get a wreath distributed from the back of the trucks. Families, veterans and couples slowly spread along the aisles of the cemetery.
Each picked a grave and laid a wreath. Some took pictures. Some had tears rolling down their cheeks. Other smiled. All kneeled down to write down the names of the soldier or veteran they honored on the stickers given for the occasion for the first time.
In two hours, the white graves of Section 12 of the cemetery were filled with wreaths with shiny red bows.
“This is a great, a wonderful thing to do,” Sylvia Wendt, from Rumford, and her three friends said in a chorus, with large smiles on their faces. “It is an honor to be here.”
Wendt has been coming to Arlinton for the past six years. On Saturday she was standing with her high school friends Susan Starr, from Scarborough, Cindy Flaherty of Saco and Gail Divine of Wallingford, Conn., who came for the first time.
They all went together to lay a wreath on a grave and then pay their respects to the veterans, spouses and children who also are buried at the national cemetery.
“You look at the names and dates,” Divine said.” It’s hard to explain, but you definitely make a connection.”
After all the wreaths were distributed, Wendt and her friends followed the group of Mainers to the grave of Muskie. Later on, they stopped at the Kennedy gravesites, the USS Maine Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknowns for a special ceremony.
What started as a small ceremony 17 years ago — when about 40 members of the Maine State Society, a Washington, D.C., organization that brings together Maine natives, laid about 4,000 wreaths — has become a national commemoration after a photograph of the wreaths, resting against gravestones on a snowy day, was e-mailed around the world three years ago.
Since then, the event has attracted many more volunteers. In 2005, there were 100. In 2006, 500. Last year, organizers estimate that around 3,000 people showed up. Some members of the Maine State Society said they thought there were even more volunteers on Saturday than last year.
Mary Beegle came from Dubois, Pa., with 35 other people for the first time.
“We have students in Iraq,” she said. “Our chaplain has just returned from Iraq. We all have connections and we are very privileged to be here to honor the people who did this for America.”
For the first time this year, Dec. 13 was officially “Wreaths Across America” day after the Senate unanimously passed a resolution this week introduced by Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to “recognize the hard work and generosity of all those involved in the project.”
The program prepared more than 105,000 wreaths to be placed on graves at 354 cemeteries and monuments across the country and 24 sites overseas, including four in Iraq.
Lew Pearson, a member of the Maine State Society, said that next year three trucks will come to Arlington as the society keeps receiving calls from all over the country and abroad.
“People want to participate for the purpose behind this or because they have a family member or a friend buried here,” he said. “It means a lot to a lot of people. It’s great.”