Scores of trucks full of holiday wreaths are traveling from Columbia Falls, Maine, to all corners of the country in preparation to honor and remember deceased veterans at more than 1,500 cemeteries on Saturday, Dec. 14.
The nonprofit Wreaths Across America was inspired by balsam farmer Morrill Worcester, the owner of Worcester Wreaths Co., whose annual tradition of placing wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery gained the spotlight in 2005, after a photo of his handiwork in the snow became popular on the internet. Two years later, the organization was launched, in response to overwhelming demand for wreaths for cemeteries across the country and the desire of many people to get involved in the project.
Twelve years later, Wreaths Across America estimates that it will place 2.2 million of the $15 fresh evergeen wreaths in cemeteries in all 50 states.
"Morrill's goal is to place a wreath on every veteran's grave throughout the country, and that's something like 24 million veterans that are buried out there,” says Wayne Hanson, chairman of the nonprofit's board and coordinator for Arlington National Cemetery's wreath ceremony. “We're far short of that right now. But we gain every year, and hopefully, we'll make that goal.”
Wreaths Across America aims not only to honor and remember veterans but also teach the next generation about the sacrifices made for freedom. It asks the millions of volunteers who assemble across the country to say the veteran's name as they place the wreath on the deceased's headstone.
"You die once when your heart stops beating — you take that last breath physically,” Hanson says. “But then you die a final time when your name is spoken for the last time, and then you're forgotten. We don't want our veterans to be forgotten."
The organization's annual pilgrimage from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery stops at schools, monuments and veterans’ homes to remind Americans of the importance of remembering.
The delivery of wreaths around the country wouldn't happen, however, without the hundreds of truck drivers who volunteer their time, fuel and equipment.
The event is the result of a yearlong effort involving the organization's headquarters in Maine and coordinators who volunteer in local communities.
Clarissa Sherrow of Oxford, Pennsylvania, spearheaded the efforts in her town of around 5,600 people. Her work included raising money to purchase wreaths and organizing volunteers who will help place them on Saturday. The community effort is the result of her outreach to local businesses, a bake sale and other activities.
"If we didn't have our veterans, we wouldn't be able to have the freedom and the choices that we have,” she says. “People that are in the service made sacrifices themselves, their families, their parents. So we need to respect that and remember that they did this for us."
So many people in her community — from the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to grandchildren to the widow of a 90-year-old veteran — have gotten involved.
"It's all ages,” Sherrow says.
Some 400 miles away, in Huntington, West Virginia, Megan Luke and her husband, Hank, who work at separate high schools, held a competition between the two JROTC programs to see which could raise the most wreath sponsorships. The outcome was that the community accumulated enough money to acquire several hundred more wreaths than it did last year, totaling just over 1,000.
In order to teach residents more about Huntington's veterans, a different service member buried at the Spring Hill Cemetery was featured on the event's local Facebook page, displaying a picture and information about the person.
During their ceremony this year, the last surviving Marine from World War II to hold the Medal of Honor, Hershel “Woody” Williams, will be the keynote speaker. He is also from the Huntington area.
"It is a good way for everyone to come together in a unified way to focus on the local people who have gone before us and all get to know each other in a different way,” Luke says. “We learn each other's stories and histories. … It's something everyone has in common, and we can get together and celebrate that commonality."