Christmas is a difficult time for anyone grieving for a lost loved one. It is especially painful for America’s military families whose son, daughter, spouse or parent was killed in action this year.
Normally, the fallen are remembered on Memorial Day in late May, but thanks to a Maine family and thousands of donors and volunteers, nearly half a million wreaths are laid on the tombstones of our fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen during the Christmas holidays.
The panoramic view of Arlington National Cemetery’s rolling hills, with the white grave markers perfectly aligned and wreaths perfectly placed, is breathtaking.
Here is how it started.
When Morrill Worcester was a 12 year-old paperboy for the Bangor Daily News, he won a trip to Washington D.C. His visit to the Arlington National Cemetery made an indelible impression that stayed with him throughout his life.
Years later, Worcester realized that he could use his family business to honor the hundreds of thousands of veterans laid to rest in Arlington.
Morrill and his wife Karen owned the Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington, Maine. Founded in 1971, Worchester is a family-owned company that is now run by second-generation family members. The company, which grows balsam fir in its forests, has become one of the largest wholesalers of holiday balsam products, providing fresh Maine wreaths, trees and centerpieces.
Wreaths Across America sprang from a gesture in 1992 when Morrill and Karen Worcester shipped their surplus wreaths to Washington, D.C., where, with the help of Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, they were placed on headstones in an older section of the Arlington National Cemetery.
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, interest in the project grew. In fact, the Pentagon, which was struck by a jetliner on that day, is within eyesight of Arlington. In 2005, when Wreaths Across America appeared on the Internet with a panoramic photo of thousands of snow-covered wreaths on Arlington headstones, interest and donations skyrocketed.
Wreaths Across America is a privately funded charity that accepts no government money. As part of the project, truckers volunteer to haul the wreaths, and veterans and other volunteers place them on the tombstones at Arlington and more than 800 national, state and local cemeteries and 24 veterans’ cemeteries overseas. Each one is carefully placed and secured to the grave marker, often with family members assisting.
In Washington, for example, Evergreen Memorial Gardens in Vancouver collects funds for the program and volunteers placed the wreaths on veterans’ graves on Saturday. Brad Carlson, whose family owns and operates Evergreen, says it is a very solemn and emotional event. “We see moms, dads, spouses and children really suffering from their loved one’s loss and this helps them know that others care and remember. It is very moving and something you don’t forget.”
More than half of the charity’s wreaths are placed at Arlington National Cemetery, forming a rolling sea of crisp, dark green fir branches with red bows.
This year, the wreaths help highlight the 150th anniversary of Arlington National Cemetery. It was dedicated in 1864 on the 624-acre estate of General Robert E. Lee, who resigned his U.S. Army commission to lead the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Today, more than 400,000 veterans are buried there.
Morrill Worchester said his first trip to Arlington National Cemetery helped him remember those who gave everything to keep America free. Today, Wreaths Across America program helps us remember, as well. The wreaths provide some comfort to family and friends of those who lost their lives because they know their loved ones have not been forgotten.
Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer and columnist.