WASHINGTON — More than 5,000 volunteers from across the country flocked to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia Saturday to spread holiday spirit while remembering the sacrifices of veterans of the armed services.
Saturday marked the 18th annual laying of wreaths at Arlington, a tradition started by Mainer Morrill Worcester in 1992 when his wreath company had hundreds of excess wreaths. With the holiday season drawing to a close that year, Worcester came to Arlington with a handful of volunteers and adorned a section of graves in a far corner of the cemetery.
Wayne Hanson, a representative of the Maine State Society of Washington, D.C, said Worcester plays a major hand in educating children about the sacrifices veterans have made for their freedom.
“We stand here among some 300,000 names … [which] thanks to Mr. Worcester and people like yourselves, are never to be forgotten,” Hanson said to a gathered sea of volunteers early Saturday morning.
Worcester reminded the volunteers that the event’s purpose was to “remember, honor and teach.”
He added that the first year he donated wreaths, the cemetery’s staff was more concerned with “who was going to clean all this up.”
Now the Maine State Society, which organizes the wreath-laying event, takes care of cleanup, arranging for volunteers to take care of the wreaths. This year, about 15,000 wreaths were distributed to volunteers to place in front of tombstones in five sections of the cemetery.
Some volunteers already knew which graves they wanted to put their wreaths on, choosing to honor a family member or ancestor. For others, the chance to lay a wreath at Arlington was an opportunity for reflection, exploration or teaching.
Jeff Nulf came from Arlington, Va., with his 6-year-old twins, Kylie and Matthew, in what he said he hopes to be the beginning of a family tradition. The siblings each chose a headstone to adorn, and Nulf made sure they read the headstones and understood the reasons those buried there deserved respect.
Matthew chose “Thomas,” he said, pointing at the section of graves the family had just walked from.
“We chose him because he was a hero, and we were thinking that a hero is a good man,” Matthew said.
Kylie said she chose “Albert,” because it reminded her of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, wandered the cemetery Saturday as well, and said that she and members of her staff placed wreaths on a number of graves. The freshman congresswoman said she, like the Nulfs, hopes to make a new tradition.
“Everyone [here] deserves our respect,” she said.
Some, like Mary Carroll, of West Grove, Pa., chose to make their marks on entire sections of the cemetery. Instead of lining up to get a wreath and select a grave, Carroll spent hours Saturday walking up and down rows of headstones, straightening bows and nudging wreaths to perfect symmetry on the graves.
“Some people put them down upside down and stuff,” Carroll said. “I’m a neatener.”
She said that taking the time to straighten others’ wreaths was her way of honoring veterans, including her husband, who served during the Vietnam War.
“Nobody did anything for the Vietnam vets,” she said. Even the wreath laying, she said, “is never going to be enough, but at least they’re doing something.”
Still others were tasked not with laying or straightening wreaths, but with ensuring their safe arrival. John and Bunny O’Leary, of Norwood, Maine, rode as part of the Patriot Guard Riders, making the weeklong journey from Maine to the District of Columbia with the trucks carrying the wreaths, visiting memorials and veterans’ associations along the way.
This is the fourth year they’ve been part of the wreaths’ official entourage.
Bunny O’Leary, a Blue Star Mother whose son is serving in the Air Force, said the trek and ceremony itself are to “try to spread the word that freedom isn’t free.”
The O’Learys were part of the group that encouraged U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Republicans of Maine, to submit Senate Resolution 358 to proclaim Dec. 12, 2009, National Wreaths Across America Day. The resolution passed unanimously, and the couple was presented with a framed copy of the resolution, signed by Collins.
John O’Leary said planning for next year’s ceremony and journey would begin as soon as they arrived home early next week.
“Here’s my best idea for next year,” John said. “Sunny, warm weather.”