More than a quarter-million wreaths laid at Arlington National Cemetery
Stars and Stripes December 17, 2022
ARLINGTON, Va. — Tens of thousands of volunteers turned out to lay some 257,000 wreaths on veterans’ headstones inside the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery early Saturday.
It was the 31st time Morrill Worcester, the founder of Wreaths Across America, made the journey from Maine to Arlington for the wreath-laying project.
It all started in 1992 as a private affair to find a way to meaningfully dispose of an over-purchase of 5,000 wreaths at the Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine, at the end of the holiday season.
Worcester didn’t want perfectly good wreaths to go to waste, so he got permission to place them on headstones at Arlington, as a way to say thank you to veterans who have served their country.
And an annual tradition was born.
Years went by, and the tradition received little fanfare, until 2005, when a photo of snow-covered wreaths on the Arlington tombstones went viral. Suddenly, a host of people began expressing interest in participating in the Arlington event, as well as starting similar events at cemeteries across the nation.
Since then, the wreath-laying enterprise has seen tremendous growth.
This year, Worcester said, Wreaths Across America provided more than 2.7 million wreaths that were expected to be laid by an estimated 2-3 million volunteers at 3,702 sites across the nation and around the world.
For many at the Arlington event, it was an emotional experience.
Navy veteran Erin Strasburger choked up with tears as she visited the headstone of her late-husband, Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Robert W. Strasburger who died in August 2020 from Hodgkin’s disease. “I almost didn’t come,” said Strasburger who wasn’t sure if she would be able, emotionally, to handle the visit. ”But it was comforting,” she said to see all the people who took time to honor those who served.
After laying her wreath, Strasburger spent some time touching the tombstone and expressing her gratitude. “It’s the first time I really thanked him for his place in our journey together. ..I spent half my life with him,” she said.
After placing his wreath, Army Chief Warrant Officer Robert Pritchard teared up as he remembered the “fellow brothers-in-arms” he lost in Afghanistan. His wife Jacqueline, standing nearby, finished his thoughts. “The wreaths serve as a remembrance. They gave their lives… It’s just giving back and remembering… so that they’re not forgotten.”
Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Tyler Laverick and his wife Jessica were intentional about bringing their four children to Arlington. “It’s important for our kids to be out here and to see what this means,” said Tyler Laverick, who choked up as he told of the significance Saturday’s event had for him. “We’ve lost a few, and it’s important to us. She’s lost a best friend, and I’ve lost a best friend.”
For the Lavericks, putting wreaths on tombstones was just one way to “give back, because they gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
Jaci Horton says she volunteers as often as she can for veterans-related events. Saturday was her fifth time volunteering to lay wreaths at Arlington. It’s her way, she said, to “give back” to her dad. Horton bit her lip to hold back tears as she told of her father, a Vietnam War veteran who, at 67, is dying she said of Parkinson’s and Agent Orange exposure.
Horton made sure to bring her 10-year-old daughter Olivia, saying “It’s a way to teach my kid respect and honor and our history and why we have the freedom we have.”
Even though it was his first time attending Arlington’s wreath-laying ceremony, Marine veteran Joe McNamara told of his motivation in coming. “When you look around here at all these headstones, and you realize the sacrifice these folks have made for me, for my kids… it’s a no brainer. Why wouldn’t I be here? And miss out on this opportunity to be able to participate in something so beautiful?... It’s an honor coming out here to do this. No other reason.”
With 30 years of wreath laying behind him, Worcester says Wreaths Across America is just getting started.
He said this year’s record 2.7 million veteran tombstones adorned with wreaths distributed by his foundation and a multitude of volunteers and corporate sponsor, represents just six percent of the total U.S. veterans buried in cemeteries.
He’s aiming for 100%. “It won’t happen all at once,” said Worcester. “But I have no doubt that we’ll be able to produce 42 million wreaths for every one of those veterans.”