Americans honor veterans at Arlington National Cemetery

Annual tradition has grown thanks to volunteer organizations, individuals

Americans honor veterans at Arlington National Cemetery

Wayne Miller, from Waldorf, Md., said Saturday was his first time at Arlington National Cemetery. He was with his wife, Pamela, laying wreaths at gravesites. Both retired soldiers, Pamela retired in 2009 and Wayne in 2010. Wayne served three tours in Iraq and rose to the rank of sergeant major. (David Vergun/Army News Service)

By David Vergun 
Army News Service

ARLINGTON, Va. —  An estimated 27,000 people converged on Arlington National Cemetery, Va., Saturday to lay some 110,000 wreaths on gravesites of veterans and their spouses, according to cemetery officials.

The annual tradition, called "Wreaths Across America," started two decades ago, when Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, found he had a surplus of wreaths and thought it fitting to donate extras to those veterans buried in the cemetery.

With the help of many volunteer organizations and individuals, the effort took off and has been growing annually.

Before moving out into the cemetery on a cool Saturday morning to lay wreaths, thousands of volunteers rallied at the Memorial Amphitheater.

Speakers there included Wayne Hanson, chairman of the board for Wreaths Across America, and Kathryn A. Condon, executive director, Army National Cemeteries Program.

"Today we remember the fallen, honor those who serve and teach our children the value of freedom," Condon said. "While we come here with this mission, we hope you leave with a memory."

Following the speeches and patriotic music, sung by Lindsay Lawler and Chris Roberts, volunteers streamed out of the amphitheater and headed toward waiting tractor trailers to pick up one of the many thousands of wreaths being handed out by other volunteers.

Eddie Hosegood, a former Marine, was one of the truck drivers for the event. He said it took him a week to get to Arlington from Harrington, Maine, because he stopped at multiple places en route to participate in ceremonies for veterans.

"I can't think of a better way to spend the week," he said.

Near one gravestone, a young boy, Ben Goodman, just 6 years old, placed a wreath under the guidance of his mother, Kris. Ben's father and Kris' husband is an Air Force officer and pararescueman, who is now serving a tour of duty at the Pentagon.

"We're military, and being here is a once-in-a-lifetime [experience] for us," Kris said.

After placing a wreath, Ben and his mother actually dropped to the ground to do 10 pushups -- something Kris said she and Ben were doing to emulate the service member in their life.

Having already placed four wreaths, Ben's mother asked him how many pushups he'd already done.

"You can count by tens," she prompted him.

"Ten ... twenty ... thirty. Forty," said Ben, counting by ten for his mother.

At only 6 years old, he's got a long time to decide if he too will become a veteran like his father.

"Maybe," Ben said, on the prospect of one day jumping from helicopters like his dad. "But that will be a hard choice."

The young boy also acknowledged that it is toughest for him when his dad goes away to serve his country.

Victoria Shaller, of Springfield, Va., was one of the thousands of volunteers at the cemetery. She said her great-grandfather served during World War I, her grandfather during World War II and Korea, and her other grandfather during World War II. Her mother's father was killed in action during World War II, she said. All of those relatives are buried at Arlington. This is Shaller's third time attending the wreath-laying event -- and she said the event has grown substantially over those years.

"It used to be a lot more intimate when there were fewer people, but this is just great today," she said. "[The increase in participants] shows that people are thinking about those who served to keep our country safe. It's just amazing."

After laying wreaths for veterans unknown to her, she then went to the gravesites of her relatives to lay wreaths there as well. She said she visits those gravesites often, actually.

"I have a special pass so I can pay my respects to family members buried here," she said.

Damian Murphy and his wife, Tara McGuinness, attended the event together for the first time this year. He's originally from New Hampshire and works now on Capitol Hill. She's originally from New York and works in the area at a policy think tank.

"Friends of ours who are in the military said they were doing this this morning, and they told friends and we told friends and I think there's people here from all over the country -- and people who served -- and it's important that each one of their names is remembered," McGuiness said.

Murphy, whose father served in the Navy, said the holidays is an especially good time to recognize the service of America's veterans.

"It's important to just come out here and show respect, especially at this time of year during the holidays," Murphy said. The couple laid a dozen wreaths together.

Staff Sgt. Salem Wilkins, stationed at Fort Lee, Va., drove several hours to attend the event and to pay her respects. She said it was worth the drive, "an honor to recognize the service of so many veterans."

For Wayne and Pamela Miller, of Waldorf, Md., it was their first time participating in Wreaths Across America. They said they felt honored to pay their respects to the veterans. Both are veterans themselves, actually. Pamela retired from the Army in 2009, while husband Wayne retired just a year later. Wayne served three tours in Iraq and rose to the rank of sergeant major.

Michael and Tia Tinsley recently got stationed in the area at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. Michael is in the Army and Tia is in the Army Reserve. They brought their daughter Kaylyn, 5, who did the honors of laying a wreath for the family. Both said they were moved by the solemnity of the occasion and were privileged to honor the veterans.

Another child, Avery Wilson, 7, had the honors of laying the wreath. He was accompanied by his father, Matt Wilson, and grandfather, Greg Wilson. The three arrived by bus from Lancaster, Pa. The trio said they were moved by the occasion, with grandfather Greg saying the outpouring of support was "kind of overwhelming."

While Wreaths Across America lays wreaths each year at Arlington cemetery, the group also provides wreaths to more than 500 other cemeteries around the United States and the world.

C. Todd Lopez contributed to this story.