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November 18, 2020 11:30 AM, EST

In Reversal, Arlington National Cemetery Directed to Host Wreaths Across America

Cemetery Officials on Nov. 16 Had Decided to Cancel Event
Wreaths Across AmericaWreaths adorn headstones at Arlington National Cemetery during last year's event. In 2019, more than 320 carriers and about 500 drivers donated their vehicles and time to transport wreaths across the nation and world. (American Trucking Associations)

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Wreaths Across America Day will return to Arlington National Cemetery — and so will trucking’s involvement — after a whirlwind stretch in which cemetery officials had initially decided to cancel the event out of coronavirus concerns.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy on Nov. 17 reversed the cemetery’s decision from the previous day after a flurry of phone calls, meetings and mounting criticism from Capitol Hill, including Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

American Trucking Associations Executive Vice President Elisabeth Barna said the federation again will participate.

Elisabeth Barna

Barna

“ATA will still have our Workforce Heroes tractor-trailer delivering to Arlington — fully loaded with wreaths and will help unload and place — following the strict guidelines,” Barna said. “We have two veteran [America’s Road Team] captains driving the Workforce Heroes truck — Nate McCarty and Sammy Brewster — both with ABF Freight.”

Each year, tens of thousands of volunteers arrive at Arlington and more than 2,500 other cemeteries to place green and red wreaths on the graves of America’s fallen military heroes. At Arlington alone, 70,000 people braved subfreezing temperatures and rain last year to participate. This year’s event is scheduled for Dec. 19.

Trucking is an essential component of the event. In 2019, more than 320 companies and an estimated 500 drivers donated their vehicles and time to transport wreaths from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery and more than 2,100 other locations in all 50 states, at sea and abroad.

“So many of our professional drivers are veterans,” Wreaths Across America Director of Communications Amber Caron said. “We know so many drivers who come back year after year. It means so much to them. For some, coming to Arlington has been a bucket list event for their lives. We’re grateful for the drivers that come back to support us. If anyone has had a tough year because of COVID, it’s the drivers.”

Officials are grateful for the opportunity to honor these veterans.

“We don’t know what this is going to look like, but we do know we are committed to represent the families that are buried there,” said Karen Worcester, Wreaths Across America executive director. “We all want to do the right thing and know we have a challenge that we’re up to meeting, and we will do it safely.”

McCarthy instructed cemetery leaders to work with Wreaths Across America officials to create a scaled-down event at Arlington, with fewer volunteers and possible assistance from cemetery staff.

“I have directed Arlington National Cemetery to safely host Wreaths Across America,” McCarthy said. “We appreciate the families and visitors who take time to honor and remember those who are laid to rest at our nation’s most hallowed ground.”

Do you think, for one moment, many of the brave men and women would have thought twice before running into battle? Why would it even be an option to take a year off to honor them?

Karen Worcester, Wreaths Across America executive director

Karen Worcester

The 24 hours following the cemetery’s initial announcement was a dizzying stretch for officials at Wreaths Across America in Columbia Falls, Maine, Worcester said on a conference call Nov. 17, during which the organization’s leadership was involved in several phone calls and strategy sessions to reverse the decision. Going forward, the organization and cemetery officials will work to plan and operate a safe event.

“Wreaths Across America has had a good, collaborative relationship with Arlington National Cemetery for 29 years,” Worcester said. “We want to protect the living and honor our heroes. We will place as many wreaths as we can this year. Do you think, for one moment, many of the brave men and women would have thought twice before running into battle? Why would it even be an option to take a year off to honor them?”

Among national cemeteries, Arlington is unique. It is operated and maintained by the U.S. Army, out of the Pentagon, which sits just a few hundred yards away.

The National Cemetery Association, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the National Park Service maintain and operate the 147 national cemeteries. The American Battle Monuments Commission, another independent agency, maintains 26 military cemeteries and other memorials worldwide.

The Veteran’s Administration has not announced restrictions that will be in place at the cemeteries it manages. Wreaths Across America has long-standing relationships with VA cemeteries and hundreds of others that are privately owned or operated by state and local governments.

Ideas being considered to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Arlington and other cemeteries include restrictions on the number of participants — possibly limiting the event to Gold Star Families — along with staggering the number of days wreaths will be laid, using cemetery staff whenever possible and allowing volunteers to participate virtually via video tools.

“We want to see that every veteran is honored,” Worcester said. “One of the successes we have had this year as an organization is taking advantage of doing things virtually. Whatever it takes for us to make sure these gifts of honor are placed, we will do it.”

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