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ARLINGTON, Va. — Hundreds of thousands of volunteers put on rain gear and bundled up at Arlington National Cemetery and 2,140 other locations in the United States and two cemeteries in Europe on Dec. 14, placing wreaths on the graves of our nation’s fallen military heroes.
Wreaths Across America, a Columbia Falls, Maine-based nonprofit organization, said 2.25 million wreaths were placed on graves during the 28th annual event, and most of the wreaths will remain at the cemeteries for a month.
Earlier in the week, hundreds of truck drivers, many of whom volunteered their time and talent, journeyed to Maine and other locations to load 580 trucks and begin delivering the precious cargo across the nation.
YRC Freight driver and former America’s Road Team Captain Alphonso Lewis served in the Army in the 1980s. He fought back his emotions as he recounted his journey down I-95 to Washington, D.C., stopping at several Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and other organized events.
“Even in the snow and the 17-degree weather, the people were still standing out there waiting for us. The towns we passed through on the way down, wow,” he said. “I got to be the lead driver, leaving on the first day, and I think I blew my horn in that one day more than I did the entire year.”
McCarty via American Trucking Associations
Lewis and American Trucking Associations Share the Road driver Nate McCarty of ABF Freight made the trip together, taking turns behind the wheel, carrying thousands of balsam fir wreaths in the trailer.
“We made at least three stops every day at schools, VFW Halls, American Legions,” McCarty said. “They presented wreaths to Gold Star families in the communities, and for us, it’s been kind of an emotional roller coaster.”
McCarty is also an Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq during the Gulf War in the early 1990s.
Outside the gates of Arlington National Cemetery, WalMart Inc. driver Ken Duncan manned the Wreaths Across America exhibit trailer, which crisscrosses the country informing Americans about the organization’s mission to “Remember, Honor and Teach.”
Nearby a line stretched several blocks long as volunteers stood in the rain to enter the cemetery. Many companies organized volunteer activities for the event. Boy Scout troops and Civil Air Patrol units were on hand to contribute their service.
“Many more Americans than most folks realize have their priorities straight; they get it,” Duncan said, looking at the long line. “Our values are in order, and America is a great nation, and our people want to honor all of those who have put it all on the line.”
Barry and Terri Davis by Dan Ronan/TT
Standing in that line were Barry and Terri Davis from Washington, D.C.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to give back, give respect and honor those who have served and sacrificed for us,” Terri Davis said.
As the wreaths are placed on the headstones, volunteers are instructed to read the person’s name aloud in tribute.
Cemetery officials say more than 400,000 Americans are buried at Arlington, and Section 60 is the final resting place for hundreds of men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s generally a place for privates and sergeants, with only a few colonels and generals resting there. In Section 60, the people placing the wreaths often knew the serviceman or servicewoman in the grave. Close friends, husbands, fathers, wives and mothers lie there. It’s not uncommon to see young widows with their children or middle-aged parents walking through the row of headstones, spending time at the grave of their loved one.
ATA President Chris Spear, middle, welcomes drivers Alphonso Lewis, left, and Nate McCarty. (American Trucking Associations)
Kerry Hanzsche of Berwyn, Pa., and Kelly Reilly of Doylestown, Pa., are military moms who came to Arlington to visit the grave of Navy SEAL Lt. Brendan Looney, who died in Afghanistan in a helicopter crash. Their sons are now on active duty and were friends with Looney.
“Our boys both went to the Naval Academy. Brendan Looney was a Naval lacrosse player,” said Reilly, as her voice trailed. “We specifically wanted to come and say a prayer for Brendan. We came to pay our respects and honor him.”
Reilly (left) and Hanzsche by Dan Ronan/TT
“I don’t even know if words can describe this. It’s just so awesome, so moving,” Hanzsche said as tears streamed down her cheek.
The moms stood at Looney’s grave for several minutes with their heads bowed and their eyes closed after placing the wreath on the headstone.
Wreaths Across America works closely with ATA, the Truckload Carriers Association and the American Moving and Storage Association to manage the logistics for this massive event, which takes months to plan.
Don Queeney, the director of transportation for Wreaths Across America, is awed by the volunteers who make this event happen every year.
“America is fine. Patriotism is strong and watch out for patriotic Americans, we’re still here,” Queeney said.
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