Thousands honor fallen servicemembers in Wreaths Across America at Arlington

By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 17, 2016

ARLINGTON, Va. — Dan Robinson turned 63 on Saturday.

Rather than celebrating, he chose to be one of the thousands of people who braved freezing rain to join Wreaths Across America in laying pine laurels at gravesites in Arlington National Cemetery.  

He was also one of the numerous Gold Star family members there who teamed up with the charitable organization as a way to deal with loss.

“I had the birthday gift of being able to put a wreath on my son’s gravesite,” he said.

Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Heath Robinson — along with 37 other people — was killed when his CH-47 Chinook was shot down over Afghanistan.  His grave is in Section 60 of the cemetery, where a large number of servicemembers who died over the past 15 years are buried.

As such, Dan Robinson was hardly alone in his grief.

Army Sgt. Chad Longell came to Arlington on Saturday to spend time with two fallen Marines, Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders and Staff Sgt. Andrew C. Seif. The three men had served together in Afghanistan, Longell said.

Saunders and Seif were two of the 11 Marines and National Guardsmen killed when a helicopter crashed off the Florida coast in 2015.

“It’s nice to be able to come here and be able to feel like you’re celebrating Christmas with the ones you miss, the ones who can’t come home,” Longell said.

More than 44,000 people came to Arlington on Saturday, according to Amber Caron, spokeswoman for Wreaths Across America. Roughly 245,000 wreaths were laid at gravesites and memorials throughout the day.

With each wreath laid, Wreaths Across America organizers said they hoped the volunteers would say the name of the deceased. That small gesture had an impact on at least one Gold Star family taking part in the daylong ceremony.

“As Gold Star parents, our greatest fear is that our son will be forgotten over time,” said Donna Parker, mother of Marine Sgt. Eli Parker, who was killed in Iraq a decade ago. “That was important, to know that somebody else was saying his name.”

Parker has had some time to come to terms with Christmas without her son. But for some, the pain of the upcoming holidays is far too recent, too raw to deal with.

“Yesterday was just like the day we walked up here to lay him in the ground,” said Jere Weathers, mother Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Weathers, who was mortally wounded in Helmand province, Afghanistan in 2014. 

“Every breath of it was trying to say goodbye again. It’s hard to believe that it’s real … that they’re not coming back home,” the Gold Star mother said. “It’s like we’re still waiting for him to come back home.”


Navy SEAL Senior Chief Edward Byers, who was awarded the Medal of Honor on Feb. 29, 2016, kneels beside the gravesite of fellow SEAL, Chief Petty Officer Nicolas Checque on Dec. 17, 2016. Checque was killed in action in 2012 and was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.