Thursday, December 17, 2009

6,000+ lay wreaths at ANC

Photo by Alex McVeigh
Abbie Goodson, 2, places a wreath on a grave marker in section two of Arlington National Cemetery. Goodson, her parents, grandparents and eight other relatives made the trek from Georgia to participate in the event.
More than 6,000 people from around the Metro Washington, D.C. area decided that they weren’t going to spend a chilly Saturday morning cozy and warm in their beds. Instead they decided to make their way to Arlington National Cemetery to help honor the men and women who spent their lives serving their country.

The 18th annual Wreaths Across America comes to ANC every winter, and since its inception every winter Morrill and Karen Worcester have donated thousands of wreaths to be placed at the gravesites around the cemetery.

In 2008, more than 300 locations held wreath-laying ceremonies in every state, Puerto Rico and in 24 cemeteries overseas. That year more than 100,000 wreaths were placed on veterans graves by more than 60,000 volunteers.

Maj. Gen. Karl R. Horst, commanding general, Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region and Military District of Washington, welcomed the crowd as they gathered around McClellan Gate at 7:30 a.m.

‘‘The message [Wreaths Across America] gives, is that we must honor the sacrifice of each veteran and the continued sacrifices of the members of our armed forces and of their Families,” Horst said. ‘‘I want each volunteer here today to know that your participation helps show us that we honor and that we remember the sacrifice. Each of us in our own way will say thank you as we lay a wreath.”

Wayne Hanson, chair of the Arlington Wreath Project for the Maine State Society of Washington D.C., spoke of the importance of continuing to pay tribute to the heroes who rest at ANC year after year.

He asked for a brief moment of silence for everyone to recognize the adjacent section 60, where the fallen from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan rest. The USO donated an additional 1,000 wreaths to be placed in that section.

John Williams, a retired Coast Guard commander who also serves as the chairman of the Board of Directors for Wreaths Across America, informed the audience that later that day, at noon eastern time, 402 wreath-laying ceremonies would take place at cemeteries and monuments across the country.

Seven wreaths would be laid at each cemetery, one each for the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, as well as one for the Merchant Marines and one dedicated to all of the prisoners of war and missing in action that are still unaccounted for.

After the speeches the crowd dispersed to several waiting 18-wheeled trucks that were filled to the brim with wreaths. The wreaths were spread in sections 2, 9, 31, 32 and 37, as well as the 1,000 wreaths in section 60.

While the event is a local staple around the holiday season, that didn’t stop people from around the country from getting to Arlington to express their gratitude.

‘‘We saw an article about the event last year, and we decided that it was a trip we had to make,” said Mike Goodson, who came with 12 other members of his Family from Savannah, Ga. ‘‘It’s just breathtaking to be a part of it, and we’ll be back next year, hopefully with even more people.”

Once the crowd got going, they moved very quickly, and before long the trucks were empty and nearly every stone in the sections had a wreath with a bright red bow laid across it.

Wreaths were also laid at the USS Maine Memorial, the gravesites of John, Robert and Edward Kennedy and the grave of former Secretary of State and Senator from Maine, Edmund Muskie. The final wreath was laid at noon, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The President of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Gold Star Mothers, Ruth Stonesifer, whose son was an Army Ranger killed on the first night of action in Afghanistan, put the event as a whole in context.

‘‘These are Families here, they’re not stones, they’re not graves,” she said. ‘‘They’re our Family, this is our history, and we need to ... hang onto it, hold it and always remember, because we as a nation cannot go forward with any good sense of planning if we don’t know what we’ve left behind.”