On Dec. 12, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke patiently waited two hours in line with 70,000 volunteers at Arlington National Cemetery to collect wreaths and secure them to headstones.
Thousands of others across our nation joined those at Arlington honoring soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who died while serving America. In all, nearly one million wreaths were laid this year.
Wreaths Across America is a privately funded charity that accepts no government money. As part of the project, truckers volunteer to haul the wreaths, and veterans and other volunteers place them on the tombstones at Arlington and more than 800 national, state and local cemeteries, as well as 24 veterans’ cemeteries overseas. Each one is carefully placed and secured to the grave marker, often with family members assisting.
Wreaths Across America sprang from a gesture in 1992 when Morrill and Karen Worcester shipped their surplus wreaths to Washington, D.C. With the help of Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, they were placed on headstones in an older section of the Arlington National Cemetery—the section of the most forgotten.
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, interest in the project grew. In fact, the Pentagon, which was struck by a jetliner on that day, is within eyesight of Arlington. In 2005, when Wreaths Across America appeared on the Internet with a panoramic photo of thousands of snow-covered wreaths on Arlington headstones, interest and donations skyrocketed.
One of those volunteers at Arlington this year was Zinke, who is a retired Navy SEAL commander and an Iraq War veteran with more than 23 years of service and a half-dozen deployments under his belt. Before retiring, he commanded more than 3,500 special operations forces in Iraq.
On Dec. 12, Zink headed for Arlington’s Section 60, which is reserved for those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Hill, a Capitol Hill publication, interviewed Zinke. He said while placing the wreaths he thought of the young men and women who’ve sacrificed their lives, their future families and their future children.
“We often fight wars with our young,” Zinke said. “That’s the sacrifice.”
Young troops today have faced “far more combat experience” than those before them, in terms of tours, time away, and the strain on their families.
“This is the longest period of sustained combat operations in history by almost double,” he added. “The force is strained but not broken.”
Importantly, Zinke noted that headstones where wreaths are placed are etched with emblems of all faiths. What’s important is they’re Americans. They’re veterans who fought side-by-side and gave their lives for a higher purpose.
Eventually, Morrill Worchester would like to provide wreaths for all of those who were killed in action or died from war-related injuries or disease. He estimates that would require 2.7 million wreaths.
This year, there was a shortage of funds until Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace interviewed Worcester. Then the money started coming—enough to cover the costs. For example, Walmart contributed $150,000 which paid for 16,000 wreaths
Cemeteries across Washington benefit. Vancouver’s Evergreen Memorial Gardens collects funds for the program and this year, volunteers placed more than 300 wreaths on veterans’ graves.
As we enjoy our holidays, we need to be mindful of three important lessons from Wreaths Across America.
First, Americans are incredibly generous.
Second, America’s private sector cares and responds. Remember, Wreaths Across America accepts no government funds.
Finally, our men and women in uniform serve America regardless of gender, race, religion or circumstances in life. They are soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines and they give us the best present there is—our freedoms.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com