Saturday, December 12, 2009

Pentagon: Volunteers Place 16,000 Wreaths at Arlington

News in Balance

News in Balance:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 12, 2009 -- The Arlington Wreath Project, an unofficial national tradition, prompted about 6,000 volunteers to wake up extra early this morning to help place 16,000 wreaths on graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

"It's really nice that America still remembers our troops," said Nikki Bunting, the widow of Army Capt. Brian Bunting, who died in Afghanistan in February 2009. She visited her husband's grave with their children, 2-year-old Connor and 5-week-old Cooper.

"It's a sad sight, but it's really beautiful. It reminds us that people care," she said.

Morrill Worcester, president of Maine-based Worcester Wreath Company, started the tradition in 1992, although the seeds for the idea had been planted 30 years earlier. The cemetery's hallowed ground first impressed Worcester in 1962, when the 12-year-old Bangor [Maine] Daily News paper boy had won a paper-sponsored contest and a trip to Washington.

"It struck me and I just never forgot it," Worcester recently said about the cemetery. "It was just such a big place and the stones are all nice and straight. I saw the Tomb of the Unknown [Soldier] and the changing of the guard."

Fast forward to 1992, when Worcester discovered his company had 5,000 surplus wreaths near the end of the season. He made arrangements to place the wreaths on graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

"The first 13 or 14 years of the Arlington Wreath Project I just did it because I wanted to do it and it was kind of a private thing," Worcester said. "We didn't want any publicity or anything else. We just did it."

For more than a decade, he sponsored the Arlington Wreath Project, with the mission to "Remember, Honor, and Teach," and managed to keep it small and relatively anonymous.

That is until 2005 when an Air Force photographer happened to capture an image of the annual honor. "Things just totally changed," Worcester said.

After the photo hit the Internet and made its way around the world, the tradition grew exponentially. This year 151,000 wreaths were placed in more than 400 cemeteries across the country by 60,000 volunteers as part of Wreaths Across America Day. Individuals and companies sponsored all but 25,000 of the 151,000 wreaths, Worcester said.

"I love seeing the participation," he said. "I'm very proud of the fact that I started it, but it's certainly not me anymore."

Worcester may love seeing the huge numbers of volunteers, but it presents interesting challenges for Wayne Hanson, who volunteers through the Maine State Society of Washington, D.C., to coordinate the Arlington Wreath Project. The Vietnam veteran also sits on the board of Wreaths Across America.

"We started off with just a handful of people helping Mr. Worcester put the wreaths down. It would take us the better part of a good day," Hanson said. "People would hear about it and want to help, so we would end up with 2[00] or 300 volunteers as the years progressed."

Though the mercury started out below 20 degrees and only climbed to the low 40s this year, it didn't deter those wanting to honor the nation's fallen heroes at the holidays.

"The community of surviving families and TAPS [Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors] are very grateful to Wreaths Across America, the USO, and other organizations for their support," said Ami Neiberger-Miller, public affairs officer for TAPS. Her brother, Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Iraq in August 2007. "Our families know that their loved ones are not forgotten.

"Many families who bury their loved ones at Arlington National Cemetery do not live nearby, and so it means a great deal to them to know that America cares and is honoring the resting place of their loved ones," she added.

Though Hanson asks for a moment of silence for those who died in recent conflicts and are buried in Section 60, wreaths are not typically placed on those graves. This year, however, the USO asked to sponsor 1,000 wreaths specifically for that section, which is set aside for U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 300 volunteers, including 125 military family members, helped place the wreaths in less than an hour.

The organization's president noted that the gesture is meant to highlight the sacrifices made by all servicemembers, however.

"This effort is not about just Arlington National Cemetery," said Sloan Gibson, president of the USO. "The USO hopes to encourage Americans to recognize the service and sacrifice of veterans who are interred at veterans cemeteries across the country."

While the day concluded with 16,000 wreaths placed in under two hours, it actually began yesterday at the Pentagon, when Wreaths Across America expanded its mission again.

"We're doing something, which is in addition to what we've done in the past," Worcester said in an earlier interview. "We're placing a wreath for every victim of 9/11 for the first time.

"There's going to be a big decorated area at Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, and there's going to be a wreath-laying ceremony at the Pentagon and another one at the field in Pennsylvania," he added.

Those wreaths were being placed during ceremonies this weekend.

(Report by Samantha L. Quigley, American Forces Press Service.)

Related: Wreaths Across America Web Site

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