On December 17, 2016, thousands of volunteers will fan out across Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), as well as locations in all fifty states and overseas, to position wreaths at the foot of headstones that mark the resting place of American veterans and their spouses.
It's a vast tradition that began in a small way when the Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, placed extra holiday wreaths in an older section of Arlington. Other organizations provided ribbons and transportation, but the tribute went on in relative obscurity until 2005 when photos of Arlington began circulating on the Internet. Over time this simple act of donation and volunteerism led to the non-profit organization known as Wreaths Across America (WAA). In 2014, for the first time, they met their goal of placing a wreath on every grave at ANC.
I've had the privilege of volunteering the last two years. Normally, a quiet and somber place, the cemetery becomes a flurry of activity for a few hours with family members arriving to specifically tend to their loved ones in addition to many, many volunteers who are there simply to honor the fallen. It is breathtaking in scope, and humbling in sacrifice.
WAA says that their purpose is to "remember, honor and teach" and every aspect of the process is designed that way from the massive caravan of trucks delivering wreaths to the tiniest child lifting one and placing it just so.
My father is buried in Section 60, and I get in line at the truck for that section to make sure I'm the one who places the wreath for him. I didn't serve, but I am lucky to have a father who served his country in the Navy, for the Army and for the Civil Service his entire adult life. When the doors open their trucks, all family members of those buried in that particular section are invited to come to the front and get wreaths first. I'm honored to do so.
The volunteers are asked not just to place wreaths, but to speak to and thank those who rest there, so I spend a few moments with Dad before taking out my camera and trying to capture the special nature of this day. I visit Dad's site a few times a year, and most of the time I get there very early in the morning when the cemetery is at it's most quiet. On this day, the place is teeming with people of all backgrounds.
Two years ago, I realized that a friend of my father's was also buried in the same section so I checked his grave and made sure it had a wreath. Last year, a few other friends gave me their information, and I checked their loved ones' graves, too. If you're reading this post, and you're not able to get there, just send me a full name and a headstone number (if you have it), and I'll do my very best to ensure they are so honored.