Even with high threat level, wreath-laying events still a go
By CARLOS BONGIOANNI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 11, 2015
ARLINGTON, Va. — When Morrill Worcester turned on the radio Friday morning, he heard news that the U.S. terrorist threat levels were the highest they’ve been since 9/11.
“How ironic,” Worcester said after arriving at the Pentagon to lay 184 wreaths in honor of those who died at the Arlington site 14 years ago, when terrorists flew a hijacked airliner into the Defense Department’s massive headquarters building.
Worcester spoke as hundreds of people gathered to pay tribute to the 9/11 victims at the Pentagon Memorial grounds, which lie adjacent to the attack crash site on the western side of the Pentagon. Dozens of volunteers would later pin 184 wreaths on the fence surrounding the memorial site.
It was Worcester’s ninth year in a row coming to the Pentagon to lay wreaths, but the primary reason for being in Arlington was to attend a massive event the next day at the nation’s most sacred military burial grounds. Saturday’s annual wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery would still go on, despite high threat levels, said Worcester, founder of Wreaths Across America, a non-profit organization. “We’re all there for the same reasons. We just want to remember and honor the veterans.”
Worcester’s wife, Karen, noted that there’s always going to be a threat, but their group is undeterred. “We’re so patriotic, we’d go anyway… we love the people buried there, we love America… and we’re not going to stay home because of the threat. We have to live our lives and define who we are as Americans, and as Americans, we’re going to that sacred ground to honor our war dead and veterans.”
In 1992, the Worcester family brought a load of wreaths to Arlington after their business, the Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine, ended the year with a surplus. They decided to make it a family tradition, but along the way, word got out about their annual trek and by 2006, the company started receiving requests to lay wreaths at cemeteries all over the country. Interest grew so much that the Worcesters decided in 2007 to start the non-profit.
Morrill Worcester said this will be the second year in a row that Wreaths Across America will lay more than 240,000 wreaths at Arlington, enough to adorn every eligible grave marker at the cemetery, excluding those that, for religious reasons, are not to receive a wreath. Many more wreaths will be laid Saturday at another 1,107 cemeteries across the nation, Worcester said.
Because of unseasonably warm weather, with temperatures expected to hit 70 F at Arlington on Saturday, Worcester anticipates as many as 60,000 volunteers, double the regular number, to be in attendance.
Maine State Police Sgt. Mark Holmquist was one of four officers selected to help escort the Wreaths Across America truck convoy from Maine to Arlington. Because of his tall stature, Holmquist was in great demand Friday at the Pentagon as several volunteers, too short to reach the top crossbar on the fence line to hang their wreaths, enlisted his help.
Holmquist, an Army veteran, said it was an honor for him to be at the Pentagon Friday remembering the 9/11 dead, but being in Arlington, he said, “has particular meaning to me, because I used to serve at the Tomb of the Unknowns.”
At Friday’s ceremony, retired Air Force Col. Tim Miner, an American Airlines pilot and a volunteer chaplain for the Civil Air Patrol, led a prayer for those who died in the 9/11 attacks. He said the ceremony holds special significance for him, because he had been scheduled to fly out of Washington Dulles International Airport on the day of the attacks, but was notified the day before to report to the Pentagon for his Reserve job.
Flight 77 from Dulles to Los Angeles was the airline terrorists hijacked to ram into the Pentagon. “Many of the names out there,” Miner said of those etched in a granite stone marker at the memorial, “are folks that I know.”
Miner noted that not every military person who died that day were inside the Pentagon. “Several, including the captain of Flight 77, were in the Reserves or retired and … on board 77.
"It’s a great opportunity, this Wreaths Across America program, to honor all of them. Because literally, all 184 folks that day became veterans of a brand new conflict, a new war on terrorism.”
Morrill Worcester, founder of Wreaths Across America, attends the annual wreath-hanging ceremony at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. The wreaths honored the 184 victims who died on Sept. 11, 2001, when a hijacked aircraft was crashed into the side of the Pentagon.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES