Christmas Wreaths at Arlington

In 1992, owner Merrill Worcester of Worcester Wreath Company in Maine, began a tradition of donating 5,000 Christmas wreaths each year to decorate the graves of veterans laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, and to show his gratitude for their sacrifice, and that of their families. In 2008, he doubled the donation to provide 10,000 wreaths for Arlington.

This video describes the wreath-laying project in 2006.

In 2007, about 3,000 volunteers showed up at Arlington National Cemetery to help place the wreaths on a chilly Saturday morning. They came from around the country, some with tears in their eyes, putting holiday demands on hold to honor veterans most never knew.

In a few hours in freezing temperatures, the volunteers placed more than 10,000 balsam fir wreaths with blazing red bows on graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

"I wish I could lay one on all of them," said Charles Wright, a Vietnam War Marine veteran and commander of the Kansas City Composite Squadron, a civil air patrol unit. "This is a tribute I’ll remember forever."

Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine, donated the wreaths "to remember the fallen, honor those who serve and teach our children the value of freedom," he said.

"It touches so many people, it just continues to grow," said Worcester, who launched the Arlington Wreath Project at the cemetery in 1992 with about 5,000 wreaths and 25 volunteers, mostly from the Maine State Society of Washington, D.C. He doubled his donation for the first time in 2008.

"There are graves that have not seen anyone visiting to pay respects for years," said Wayne Hanson, the wreath coordinator for the society, which continues to supply volunteers. "You’re paying tribute to those forgotten people."

Cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. designated section 33 as the area to decorate for 2008.

"I just feel very proud," said Metzler, who has watched the project evolve since the beginning. "People are taking time out to decorate the graves and to do it right. And the kids are being taught that this is something good to do."

One child placing wreaths was getting the message. "I’m learning that there are really nice people in the world because they donated like a million wreaths so the people in the graves could feel nice and warm up in heaven," said 11-year-old Zachary Coyle, of Westminster, Md.

In all, in 2008 more than 60,000 volunteers helped to place more than 100,000 wreaths in cemeteries across the country.

Worcester and his wife, Karen, traveled with two truckloads of wreaths and stopped along the way in part to talk to students at schools.

"I don’t think they realize that the ultimate sacrifice by these veterans happened for them," he said, adding that more than 740,000 troops have been killed or listed as missing in action since World War I. "It’s a tremendous loss of life."

Worcester also stopped at several towns for ceremonies during his 740-mile trip to transport the wreaths, all made in Maine. Two Maine companies donated trucks, which were escorted by Maine State Police troopers and members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a nationwide group of veteran bikers.

Other volunteers who handed out wreaths by the armfuls included members of the Maine Civil Air Patrol, local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts, military units, congressional staffers, scout troops and school children.

Worcester got into the wreath business to earn money when he was a University of Maine student in animal science, but said he now serves as the sole supplier for L.L. Bean and operates the biggest mail-order wreath business in the country.

He also said he started the wreath project "by mistake," explaining that he had extra wreaths in 1992 and decided to decorate graves at Arlington National Cemetery. He had visited the cemetery at 12 after winning a trip to the area for adding a certain number of customers to his newspaper route.

"I wasn’t all that patriotic at the time," he said. "But I was impressed with the size of the cemetery, how well-kept it was and with the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier."

The 2008 event included placing special wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns as well as the USS Battleship Maine Monument and the graves of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Edmund Muskie, former secretary of state and Maine senator.

"This comes at a time when we need a little shot of patriotism," said Maine State Rep. Joseph L. Tibbetts, who also served with the 9th Infantry in Vietnam.

Tibbetts adjusted the wreath on Muskie’s grave and looked around the cemetery, uplifted by the flashes of red and green against the rows of white headstones.

"This is a beautiful place," he said. "It doesn’t take much to turn beautiful into wonderful."

Worcester has expanded the Arlington project to Wreaths Across America, a non-profit organization with the goal of placing wreaths on graves at more than 200 cemeteries and monuments nationwide. In 2008, he estimated that, with contributions from the public, volunteers would decorate about 35,000 graves nationwide this season.

Cadets from the Civil Air Patrol’s Kansas City Composite Squadron alone raised $17,000 in wreath sponsorships for the national effort, said Cathy Metcalf, the squadron’s deputy commander.

"We felt it was an important event for our cadets to take on," she added. "It’s because of the veterans that we’re here walking in a free country."

Worcester had a personal mission during the 2008 event: to place a wreath on the grave of U.S. Navy Adm. William "Bull" Halsey for a friend who recently had a stroke and couldn’t make the trip. He found the grave and did what he tells others to do: to think about the veteran and the sacrifices he or she made.

"I'm not a veteran, but I'm behind what they're doing," he said, adding that the wreath project will continue "as long as there's a Worcester."

He also said he’d like to place a wreath on every veteran’s grave, but added, "That’s a tall order."

But Worcester said he sees support growing and gratitude for what’s been done as volunteers tap him on the shoulder to shake his hand.

"God bless you," said Kathy Pickett, of Sykesville, Md. "I just think this is amazing. You want everyone to have a wreath on their grave for what they’ve sacrificed."

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