Wreaths honor veterans at cemeteries across America | Brunell

The holiday season is an especially difficult time for anyone grieving lost loved ones. Evergreen wreaths placed on veterans’ graves across America help to ease that pain.

More than 2.5 million red-ribboned wreaths were placed by thousands of volunteers, including many family members, on Dec. 17. Those wreaths are made from clippings of balsam firs dedicated to deceased veterans. Each tree growing in Maine has the “dog tags” identifying the fallen service member. The trees are living year-round memorials.

Normally, the fallen are remembered on Memorial Day, but thanks to a Maine family and over hundreds of thousands donors, truckers and volunteers, the fallen are remembered at Christmas.

The most stunning view of the wreaths is at Arlington National Cemetery, where the panoramic view of its rolling hills with its perfectly aligned white grave markers contain 250,000 wreaths.

Since the program started in 1992, more than 3,400 burial grounds across the nation and American national cemeteries in foreign lands have joined.

In Washington state, more than two dozen memorial parks located from Walla Walla to Port Orchard participate. There are over 50,000 veterans’ graves, and over half of them are at Tahoma National Cemetery near Kent. In Vancouver, nearly 900 wreaths arrived at Evergreen Memorial Gardens where on Dec. 17, volunteers placed them on veteran grave markers.

Here is how it started.

When Morrill Worcester was a 12-year-old paper boy for the Bangor (Maine) Daily News and won a trip to Washington, D.C., his visit to 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.

Founded in 1971, Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington, Maine, a family-owned business, grows balsam fir in its forests. It has become one of the largest wholesalers of holiday balsam products, providing fresh Maine wreaths, trees and centerpieces.

Wreaths Across America (WAA) sprang from a Worcester gesture in 1992, when surplus wreaths were shipped to Washington, D.C. They were placed on headstones in an older section of the Arlington National Cemetery — the most forgotten part of the burial grounds.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, interest in the project spiked. In fact, the Pentagon, which was struck by a jetliner on that day, is within eyesight of Arlington.

In 2005, when WAA appeared on the internet with a sobering photo of thousands of snow-covered wreaths on Arlington headstones, interest and donations mushroomed.

Wreaths Across America is a privately funded charity that accepts no government money. Delivery of a million wreaths is quite an undertaking, especially when much of our country is dealing with frigid arctic temperatures, icy roads, and blinding blizzards.

Over 100 trucking companies voluntarily load their semi-trailers and their drivers fan out across America. They absorb all the delivery costs.

For example, Walmart donates 11 trucks to deliver over 100,000 wreaths. BNSF Railway, in collaboration with J.B. Hunt Transport, helped transport 227,000 wreaths on piggyback railcars.

Morrill Worcester told the Bangor Daily News his first trip to Arlington National Cemetery helped him remember those who gave everything to keep America free. Today, the Wreaths Across America program helps us remember as well.

The wreaths provide some comfort to families and friends of America’s fallen. They also remind us not to forget those suffering with life-long mental and physical disabilities from military service.

“We always say that a person dies twice,” said Bre Kingsbury from Wreaths Across America. “The first time when they take their last breath … and then the second is when their name is spoken out loud for the very last time.”

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He is a former president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. Contact thebrunells@msn.com.