ARLINGTON, Va. — Thousands of people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday to lay 143,000 Maine-made wreaths on veterans’ graves, helped along by a last-minute surge of donations that enabled organizers to surpass their goal.
“It’s an emotional and almost life-changing experience,” said Hattie Train, a junior at Portland’s Cheverus High School who made the trip with more than a dozen other swim team members. “This is my second time coming down and every time it touches you.”
Less than two weeks ago, Wreaths Across America was grappling with a side effect of the growth of the program to honor veterans.
Donations were up for wreath-laying ceremonies nationwide but the budget for the largest observance – at Arlington National Cemetery – was more than $500,000 shy of the goal. As news of the shortfall spread, however, so did the response from people around the country eager to help.
On Saturday, it took the crowd less than two hours to transform Arlington’s landscape with 143,000 green-and-red “remembrance wreaths” set against the simple white headstones. That figure was well above the original goal of 135,000 and up from 110,600 last year. More than 400,000 veterans or their family members are buried at Arlington.
Addressing the crowd during Saturday’s opening ceremonies, Wayne Hanson from the Wreaths Across America board of directors got emotional as he recounted the flood of late donations – including $5,000 sent by students at the School of the Ozarks, a small high school in Point Lookout, Mo.
“The character of those students out there who stepped up from way across the country to help us here in Arlington, that’s what it’s all about,” said Hanson, the board’s chairman.
What began as one Maine family’s attempt to honor deceased veterans has grown into a national observance.
Back in 1992, Morrill Worcester of Worcester Wreath Co. found himself with 5,000 additional evergreen wreaths. After receiving permission, he brought the batch to Arlington from Harrington, Maine, and placed them on graves in an older, little-visited section of the cemetery.
Worcester, his wife, Karen, as well as other family members and employees continued the tradition. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that the program took off after photographs of a snowy, wreath-covered Arlington went viral.
This year, Wreaths Across America planned to ship 470,000 to 500,000 wreaths to decorate graves in more than 900 locations, including some overseas.
“I really think it became our responsibility, at that point, to do what we do,” Morrill Worcester said Saturday. “Today, I really think it is our obligation to be here and to do what we do.”
Saturday’s crowd included uniformed service members, gray-haired veterans, families with strollers and numerous Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups. As in past years, Maine was well represented.
Several dozen officers from the Maine State Police, the Portland Police Department, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and other police agencies, as well the Portland Fire Department, traveled to the Washington area.
Mainers were involved in the ceremonies, placing wreaths at the grave of President John F. Kennedy, the memorial to the sunken USS Maine battleship and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
About a dozen tractor-trailers filled with wreaths made the trip from Maine, stopping in towns all along the route. They were escorted by the Maine State Police and Patriot Guard Riders on their motorcycles.
The first lady of Maine, Ann LePage, accompanied the truck convoy from Maine on the back of a three-wheeled motorcycle. Her husband, Gov. Paul LePage, came down later for Saturday’s ceremonies.
Despite the snow, sleet and cold, Ann LePage said: “I already told them I am going to do it again next year.”
Among the contingent from Portland’s Cheverus High School was the Fornaro family, parents Giulia and Michele and daughters Alexia and Daniela. The family queued up several times at the tractor-trailers to receive wreaths.
“It’s amazing, absolutely amazing,” said Alexia, an 18-year-old senior making a return trip to Arlington.
About two hours later, a large group from Cheverus accompanied their swim team coach, Kevin Haley, to the grave of his brother, William. The group watched respectfully as Haley – dressed in his formal Portland Police Department uniform – gently touched his brother’s headstone, leaned the wreath against it, stepped back and saluted.
Haley, who is an advisory board member to Wreaths of America, then said a teary “thank you” to the close-knit group described as “a family” by some team members.
By noon, the tractor-trailers were empty – much to the dismay of Duane Drake, a D.C.-area resident searching for one last wreath for the grave of his brother’s father-in-law.
Drake had already laid a wreath at the headstone of his father, Sgt. 1st Class William Coolidge Drake Jr., who died last spring after years of battling medical problems caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. His son still visits the grave every other week.
Unable to find a wreath, Drake was walking down the road when a Worcester Wreath Co. SUV happened to drive by. After talking with Drake, Karen Worcester walked to the rear of the SUV, took out a final wreath and gave it to the man.
“I feel blessed,” Drake said afterward as he walked toward his family member’s grave.