WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2010 — For nearly 20 years, a group of dedicated volunteers and sponsors have ensured that servicemembers and other prominent Americans at rest at Arlington National Cemetery are not forgotten during the holiday season.
Andrea Rodway will be among the more than 7,000 volunteers who will gather at Arlington tomorrow to place wreaths on more than 24,000 gravesites in sections 28, 38, 43 and 60.
Servicemembers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried in Section 60. About 9,000 fallen Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are buried in Arlington. Rodway, a Washington, D.C., resident, participated in the Arlington event for the first time last year.
“It means a lot for me to be able to take part in something like this,” she said. “It’s something that I can do to support the troops and their families, and it’s a special time of year.”
Other wreath placements at Arlington tomorrow will be made at the USS Maine Memorial, the Kennedy gravesites and the grave of Maine senator and secretary of state Edmund Muskie. The final wreath placement will be at noon at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Morrill Worcester, president of the Maine-based Worcester Wreath Company, started the wreath-laying tradition at Arlington in 1992. Near the end of the Christmas holiday season that year, Worchester discovered that his company had 5,000 surplus wreaths, said Wayne Hanson, who coordinates the holiday wreath project at Arlington. Worcester decided the surplus wreaths should be dedicated to servicemembers buried at Arlington, Hanson said.
For more than a decade, Worcester sponsored the Arlington Wreath Project with the mission to remember, honor, and teach, Hanson said. The event was kept small and relatively anonymous during those years, he said.
However, the tradition gained worldwide exposure in 2005 when an Air Force photographer captured an image of the event.
After the photo was posted to the Internet, people began to realize what Worcester “and so few of us were doing all these years,” Hanson said.
The Arlington Wreaths Project became the nonprofit Wreaths Across America in 2006, he said, noting that the number of volunteers, sponsorships, donations and wreaths has grown every year since.
Rodway never served in the military, but feels a strong connection to servicemembers, having lived in Washington, D.C., for the past six years. Many of her closest friends, she said, are military members. Her father and uncle are also veterans.
“Everyone in this country should try to do something for the troops,” Rodway said. “It’s important for today’s generation of Americans not to forget the sacrifices of those who serve now and who served in the past. Any little thing a person can do to donate their time for a good cause is definitely worth a few hours in the cold.” In 2009, 151,000 wreaths were placed in more than 400 cemeteries across the country by 60,000 volunteers as part of Wreaths Across America Day. More than 220,000 wreaths this year will be placed on gravesites at more than 500 cemeteries around the world, Hanson said.
“The tradition has grown tremendously,” he said. “If the weather’s good [tomorrow], I expect we’ll have about seven or eight thousand volunteers.” Hanson said volunteers traveled all the way from Hawaii to participate in last year’s wreath-laying event at Arlington.
“It just goes to show you the pride people take in our country and have in our servicemembers,” he said.
Many veterans of America’s past conflicts who now remain at peace at Arlington don’t have living relatives or friends to remember the sacrifices they made, Hanson said.
“That person who was in World War I or the Korean War whose family members are all gone, may not have had anyone thank them for their service for decades,” he said. “That’s why people come here every year by the thousands just to say thank you. It’s an amazing sight to see.”
More than 333,000 Americans dating back to the Civil War to the present-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In honor of Worcester’s 20th year next year of donating wreaths to the cemetery, Hanson said, the group hopes to work out a plan that will permit a wreath being placed on every single gravesite there.
Eventually, he added, the organization hopes that one year, they will be able to coordinate an event that will see a wreath placed on the gravesite of every American veteran across the country.
“It’s going to take a lot of coordination,” Hanson said. “But it’s something we’re going to continue working toward.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)