Truck Drivers Delivering Wreaths Share Deep Ties to Military

Wreaths Across America
Shane Thornley places a wreath on a headstone at Arlington National Cemetery during Wreaths Across America Day on Dec. 17. (Nathan Howard/AP)

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ARLINGTON, Va. — It’s no coincidence that there are military veterans among the scores of truck drivers who hauled Christmas wreaths to honor their fallen comrades Dec. 17 for National Wreaths Across America Day, and all felt humbled and honored to be there.

Much of the focus on the annual event is centered at Arlington National Cemetery, but volunteers gather at cemeteries nationwide — as well as in the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico — to lay wreaths on veterans’ graves.

David Gunter delivered a load of wreaths to Carson City, Calif., for shipment to Guam before heading east to participate in the wreath-laying event at Arlington. A Special Forces veteran, Gunter spent 20 years in the Army before transitioning to trucking. He is a driver with Sharp Transportation in Utah.

“It’s hallowed ground in Arlington, where you have people who have given everything they can possibly give,” he told Transport Topics Dec. 16 during a dinner in Arlington that preceded the event. “It’s a dream to be able to come here.”

David Gunter

 David Gunter is a driver with Sharp Transportation in Utah. (Noël Fletcher/Transport Topics)

Gunter added, “When I joined the military, I signed up to take a bullet for this country. It didn’t happen to me, but it did to them.”

The wreaths, made in Maine, are placed on the graves of 257,000 veterans at Arlington by more than 28,000 volunteers.

“I have four comrades buried here,” said Marvin Garvey, a Hampstead, N.C.-based driver for Epes Transport System. He transitioned to trucking after serving two decades in the Army, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year was his second time transporting wreaths for the Arlington ceremony.

Garvey said he appreciates that the annual honor helps ensure these service members are “remembered for generation after generation.”

Marvin Garvey

Marvin Garvey drives for Epes Transport System in North Carolina. (Noël Fletcher/Transport Topics)

Wreaths Across America is a nonprofit that started the tradition of coordinating the wreath-laying ceremonies, supported by volunteers who help coordinate the effort each year. Across the 3,702 participating locations, more than 2 million volunteers — about one-third of them children — laid wreaths on veterans’ graves. Each veteran’s name was read aloud as the wreaths were placed.

For Don Welch, military service runs in the family; in addition to himself, all three of his sons are veterans, and his grandson is now serving in Poland. Welch, a driver for Joplin, Mo.-based CFI Inc., has been in trucking for 33 years.

“When I first pulled up at the cemetery, it was a humbling experience for me,” he said of arriving at Arlington, noting that he met a Gold Star mother with her family at the foot of her son’s grave as soon as he climbed out of his truck. Welch said he was initially surprised by what he called her “upbeat” attitude, but learned that it was rooted in her late son’s desire to serve in the military; he died doing what he loved.

Portland, Maine-based police officer Kevin Haley understands what it’s like to lose a family member who served; his brother, Air Force E-9 Master Sgt. William Haley, is buried at Arlington. Haley said his brother suffered from post-traumatic stress and died by suicide.

“Wreaths Across America helped me and my family heal and celebrate how he lived, not how he died,” Haley said. “It’s important to commemorate goodness rather than tragedy.”

Haley, who has been a police officer for 27 years, is a Wreaths Across America board member and has been involved with the organization for 19 years. Another of his brothers is also an Air Force veteran.

Truck at Wreaths

(SunJae Smith/American Trucking Associations)

From January until the event in December, Haley coordinates police activities that include tailoring driving routes for trucks hauling wreaths through various law enforcement jurisdictions, meeting regularly with volunteer police officers, working with police escorts and knowing each intersection trucks will pass through on their way to cemeteries.

Wreaths board secretary Renee Saunders Worcester said wreaths are either delivered directly from Maine or transported via intermodal to six receiving centers, where trucks then handle pickup for distribution. She is also shipping manager for wreath-maker Worcester Wreath Co. Its owner, Morrill Worcester, in 1992 got the idea to send surplus wreaths to an older section of Arlington that had fewer visitors. From then, the tradition spread.

Kevin Haley and Renee Saunders Worcester

Kevin Haley,  board member for Wreaths across America, and Renee Saunders Worcester, board secretary of Wreaths Across America. (Noël Fletcher/Transport Topics) 

This year, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution designating Dec. 17 as National Wreaths Across America Day. The resolution, sponsored by Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, honors “the Wreaths Across America project, patriotic escort units, the U.S. trucking industry and the volunteers and donors involved in this tradition. Additionally, the resolution recognizes the service and sacrifices of veterans and members of the Armed Forces and their families.”

A joint statement from the senators added, “For more than 30 years, the fields of Maine-made wreaths have served as a solemn reminder of the sacrifices of America’s veterans. The longevity of this event is a testament to the spirit of Maine people, our overwhelming gratitude to our nation’s service members and the extraordinary dedication of all those who have made the tribute possible.

“This resolution remembers and honors America’s veterans this holiday season, while also teaching younger generations of the sacrifices that have been made to secure our freedoms and to defend our liberty.”

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