The holidays are a time to celebrate our blessings; a time to give back; a time to pay forward to those who make a difference in our lives. It is a time to gather close to those we love and to appreciate them for all the things that they do to bring meaning to our lives.
During the holiday season, we also take time from our busy schedules to remember those we can’t live without; to honor those we respect; and to teach our youth the value of freedom and democracy. Freedom is not free.
The land of the free is paid for every day with the lives of the brave. The cost is carried by those who serve, and those who have served, so that we at home can enjoy our freedom and have a warm, safe place to rest our heads every night.
Tomorrow, on the second Saturday in December, more than 160,000 Americans will show up at veterans’ cemeteries across the nation to demonstrate that they have not forgotten this debt or the sacrifices of our military. They will volunteer, alongside Wreaths Across America, to place a wreath at the headstone of an American hero. More than 200,000 service men at more than 500 locations in the U.S. and abroad will be honored, including 24,000 veterans resting at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Nineteen years ago Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreaths and founder of Wreaths Across America, had the idea to honor veterans by placing a wreath at their headstone when he overstocked 5,000 wreaths one winter.
“They were fresh wreaths, and I didn’t want them to go to waste,” said Worcester. “I visited Arlington when I was 12, and remembered how inspiring it was. I figured there could be no better place for the wreaths then at the headstones of our fallen heroes.
“From there, Wreaths Across America took on a life of its own,” he added. “I’m just a wreath-maker from Maine.”
But this wreath-maker from Maine hasn't missed a trip to Arlington since that first year. And each year, the convoy of tractor-trailers and patriots following him and his wife, Karen, grows larger and larger. More and more schools and veterans organizations offer food and warm coffee to the Wreaths Across America convoy as they travel down the Eastern seaboard.
This year they are even accompanied by two Washington County, Maine, Sheriff Deputies and two Maine State Troopers. All four of which are veterans, and both of the state troopers are retired military with more than 25 years of active duty service.
“What you see today is not my doing,” said Worcester. “It’s the product of hundreds of thousands of like-minded Americans in communities just like yours and mine who just want to remember and honor our heroes just like I do. I see no end in sight for Wreaths Across America – this is just Americans honoring Americans.”
The escort to Arlington National Cemetery begins on the first Saturday of December in Northeast Maine (counter-intuitively, Northeast Maine is called “downeast” by locals). After a sunrise ceremony at Quoddy Head National Park, the easternmost point in the continental United States, the convoy embarks on a seven-day road trip, stopping only for sleep and to “Remember, Honor, and Teach” at grade schools and veterans’ memorials along the Coastal Highway 1 route.
This year the sunrise ceremony at Quoddy Head was brief, but it happened despite the 20 degree weather. The men and women participating were there for a cause greater then themselves. One hardened veteran with icicles on his mustache, muttered, “I’m sure Korea was worse.” Another veteran added, “I’m sure Afghanistan is worse.”
Also among those braving the icy sleet at 5 a.m. was a group of four ladies, all dressed in white. They are Gold Star Mothers. Each has lost a son in combat, and they traveled to Maine to honor their children and to help honor others.
After the Quoddy Head ceremony, the Gold Star Mothers embraced their Canadian equivalents, the Silver Cross Families, at the U.S.-Canadian border. A wreath was given to the Silver Cross Families as a sign of respect for the sacrifices made by our Allies and their families.
The start of what’s been called the largest veterans parade in the world begins in the small town of Machias, Maine. From there, the convoy of nearly 30 tractor-trailers departs. All but six split off in Bangor, Maine – headed for National Cemeteries across the country. Another splits from the pack in New York City to deliver wreaths to Ground Zero and Shanksville, Pennsylvania – the site of the Flight 93 memorial. Escorted by the Patriot Guard, the remaining five truck-loads of wreaths are destined for Arlington, Virginia, the Pentagon, and the War Memorials at the National Mall in Washington D.C.
Ceremonies fill each day of the journey with buckets of emotion, as residents bring their children out to the curb of Small Town, U.S.A. to wave their American flags and cheer on the convoy. They scream, “Thank you!” and chant “U.S.A.!” from overpasses, storefronts, school zones, and even out of their car windows. Traffic passing the opposite direction never fails to lay on the horn as they pass by the mile-long procession of vehicles decked out with American, POW, and service flags.
While Worcester insists on remaining in the background, his company does not go without its own donation, this year contributing more than 25,000 wreaths to the cause.
“It’s not about me. It’s not about Worcester Wreaths. It’s not about decorating graves. It’s about remembering, honoring, and teaching,” he said. “We owe it to these veterans to ensure that our children understand the specific cost at which their freedom was purchased.”
Remember, Honor, and Teach is more than just a theme – it’s the mission of Wreaths Across America, and it is actionable. There are course curriculums on the Wreaths Across America website that teachers can download, and their Million Memories Project is designed to capture a veteran’s oral history through the eyes of those who know them.
“It’s these stories – these specific experiences – that reach the heart and are retained by the mind,” said Karen Worcester. “Only by telling and sharing these stories can we know what the real cost for our freedom has been.”
At Arlington, tomorrow, front gate will open at 6 a.m. for volunteers who wish to help lay wreaths. The convoy will arrive shortly thereafter, followed by an official ceremony beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the intersection of Lincoln and L’Enfant drives, near sections 28, 38, and 43. Parking is available inside the cemetery, but using the Metro is always a good idea. Click here to find out about wreath-laying ceremonies taking place in your local area.
There are two things that I’ve learned along this 750-mile journey: First, Karen Worchester’s kindness and Morrill Worchester’s modesty know no bounds. These are truly good people with good hearts, bringing their goodness of character to communities across America. Second, patriotism and support for our troops is alive and well in America today, and if you have any doubts, come along for a ride through New England on the 2011 Wreaths Across America Escort to Arlington.
Next year, on the 20th anniversary of the Arlington Wreath event, Wreaths Across America has been granted permission to lay a wreath by every one of the more than 340,000 headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. Permission is one thing – now we all need to help.
Whether to sponsor a wreath, or, as Karen Worchester would say, to “give what you can give,” visit www.WreathsAcrossAmerica.org.
Joseph Andrew Lee is a USO staff writer.