HERMON, Maine — Police Officer Dick Bateman already had been on the road for the better part of Friday and Saturday working a couple of long shifts. But the 45-year veteran motorcycle patrolman for Hampton, N.H., was on the road again Sunday despite the cold, the dark and the rain giving way to spitting snow.
“Um, I left Portland at 3 o’clock this morning and drove up here,” said Bateman who is volunteering to escort 25,000 wreaths donated by Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia for the annual Wreaths Across America effort.
Bateman, one of 16 volunteer police escorts representing 10 law enforcement agencies, and 16 Walmart tractor-trailers full of wreaths were standing by outside Hermon Elementary School on Sunday afternoon during a special military ceremony attended by Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine and honoring veterans and their families, as well as supporters of Wreaths Across America.
Six of those trucks and three of those escorts will make the entire 770-mile, 26-stop, seven-day trip to Arlington to deliver wreaths to be placed on veterans’ graves. The rest will deliver wreaths to veterans’ cemeteries nationwide.
“From Hermon we take Route 1 to Cheverus High in Portland, then Cabella’s in Scarborough, then we’ll stop in Wells and Kittery, Hampton Beach in New Hampshire, some stops in Massachusetts, then Rhode Island and Connecticut. We’ll have 26 stops over seven days,” said Norway resident John O’Leary, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, an organization created five years ago to recognize veterans and escort military funerals targeted by protesters.
O’Leary, the coordinator of the 770-mile journey to lay donated wreaths on veterans’ graves at Arlington, is a five-year veteran of the annual Wreaths Across America undertaking.
“Five years ago when we started up, the Patriot Guard called the wreath company to see if there was anything we could do to help,” O’Leary said. “I never even knew where Harrington was before I got there, and now we’re in charge of the whole thing.”
Bateman never had heard of Harrington either, but he is the only police officer from outside the state to serve as part of the all-volunteer police detail each of the last three years.
“It was ice the first year and snow last year. This year we have the snow and rain. It’s always interesting,” said Bateman, who became personally invested in the annual event after helping lay wreaths at Arlington three years ago.
“They were looking for volunteers,” Bateman said. “We went in at 6 o’clock in the morning, and there was a line of other people already waiting. When we left after noon, people were still coming in and waiting to volunteer.”
“It’s very emotional to be part of that,” Bateman continued, his voice choking with emotion and forcing him to pause. “You invest in the past with respect for the future.
“There’s an old saying that if you want to know what a community looks like, go to their cemeteries. If they have respect for the elderly and the deceased, you have a great place. If you do that as a nation, you tell the rest of the world a very definitive story about us.”
For 19 years, Worcester Wreath president Morrill Worcester has been investing heavily in the past. After donating 15,000 wreaths last year, Worcester is giving 20,000 this year. In all, 215,000 wreaths — 195,000 of which are paid for by donations from corporate sponsors, veterans groups, the USO and private individuals — will be placed on veterans’ graves nationwide as well as at cemeteries in 21 other countries.
Worcester started the tradition in 1992 when, with the help of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, he donated 5,000 surplus wreaths in mid-December that were too late to bring to market. In 2006, he founded Wreaths Across America to coordinate with other wreath-laying ceremonies nationwide. Worcester has donated more than 100,000 wreaths over the last 18 years.
Being part of that kind of nationwide cooperative effort to honor U.S. veterans is a no-brainer for Portland Police Lt. Janine Roberts, who helped out with escort duties for a fourth straight year.
“It’s all donated time by the officers involved,” said the American Legion’s Maine police officer of the year. “I don’t make a lot of money, but I have a lot of time, so I donate that.”