Every headstone has a story — That was the message delivered by Karen Worcester as she stood before thousands of volunteers who gathered to lay remembrance wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday, Dec. 14.
She also expressed appreciation to those who have made her family’s attempt to honor deceased veterans grow into a national observance. Several years ago, her husband, Morrill, found himself with a surplus of 5,000 balsam wreaths at Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Maine. He brought the batch to Arlington and placed them on graves in an older, little-visited section of the cemetery.
With a mission of “remember, honor and teach” about the service and sacrifices of veterans, the Worcesters later launched the non-profit organization Wreaths Across America, which now conducts wreath-laying ceremonies at hundreds of veterans’ cemeteries nationwide. This annual tradition requires the assistance of many trucking companies and industry organizations to make it happen.
And at Arlington National Cemetery, the hallowed ground that represents fallen soldiers who marched in all American conflicts, the trucking industry left quite a footprint this past weekend.
The opening ceremony took place on a custom-built, mobile stage—a curtain-sided flatbed trailer—provided by Gary Salisbury, former Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) chairman and the president and CEO of Fikes Truck Line. The agenda included two songs by Lindsay Lawler, the spokesperson for TCA’s Highway Angel program and a country singer known for patriotic, pro-trucking lyrics.
“Wreaths Across America Day at Arlington National Cemetery is the most special experience I have ever been a part of and one that has given me such great honor,” Lawler said. “To stand before thousands and salute our past and present troops and their families by singing our National Anthem and God Bless America is a memory that I will carry the rest of my life.”
After the opening ceremony, volunteers flocked to 41 tractor-trailers that were scattered throughout Arlington National Cemetery. The trucks were loaded with more than 143,000 wreaths — a record amount helped along by a last-minute surge of donations that enabled Wreaths Across America to surpass their original goal of 135,000.
Throughout the day, participants could easily identify some 300 core volunteers thanks to vests donated by the Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA). Cindy Atwood, Deputy Director of the CVTA, served as the head greeter and said she was privileged to work with a dedicated group of individuals who arrived at 6:00 a.m. to organize and facilitate the wreath laying process.
“Volunteers gathered in the dark and very cold weather, then stood at the gates to welcome those coming to lay wreaths on the graves of our veterans. The greeters rarely have an opportunity to lay a wreath themselves and yet they proudly man their posts, answering questions and directing the crowds,” Atwood said.“Everyone is happy and motivated, with a shared desire to make this a memorable experience for all involved. Wreaths Across America sheds light on the strength of the community during the holiday season and serves as an amazing example of individuals, businesses and government coming together as one to remember our fallen heroes in a meaningful and respectful manner.”
The simple act of laying a wreath on a headstone can have a powerful effect. “Until you step foot onto this sacred place and listen to the stories of remembrance from friends and family members of loved ones buried there, you have no idea how this place will impact you,” Lawler said. “Placing a wreath on a grave of someone unknown to me, whose family and friends were not able to be there to place one themselves gave me such a sense of unity and pride for my country.”
In less than two hours, the simple white headstones in more than 30 sections of Arlington’s landscape were transformed by green wreaths with red bows. Simultaneously, veteran’s cemeteries nationwide were experiencing a similar metamorphosis thanks in part to the generosity of the trucking industry.
“Wreaths Across America Day is an enormous effort that depends heavily on trucks, trailers, professional drivers, a dispatching system, and plenty of wreath sponsorships,” Karen Worcester said. “We know that the cost of operating trucking equipment is expensive—especially fuel. Yet, since TCA and its members got involved, we’ve been able to place wreaths at 900 veterans’ cemeteries across the nation—up nearly 100 locations from last year.”
This year, over 100 motor carriers delivered wreaths to veterans’ cemeteries and locations nationwide, as more than 500,000 soldiers were honored with a remembrance wreath. “It’s an amazing commitment that truly shows what values the trucking industry stands for,” Karen added. (A list of additional participating motor carriers can be found at www.truckload.org/2013-Volunteer-Trucking-Companies.)
For the sixth straight year, Indiana’s Baylor Trucking, Inc. delivered donated wreaths free-of-charge. Using a specially-decorated Wreaths Across America trailer, Baylor Trucking made deliveries to five location in Indiana and 11 in Ohio.
“I’ve been part of the actual deliveries, and it is so incredibly poignant. This is Baylor Trucking’s way of giving a little to those who gave all,” Cari Baylor, Vice President of Baylor Trucking, said.
Above and beyond having a truck at Arlington, Prime Inc. participated in Wreaths Across America Day at Springfield (Missouri) National Cemetery. Their ceremony included the Springfield Civil Air Patrol Auxiliary color guard and 21-gun salute conducted by the VFW Honor Guard. Leading up to the event, the Missouri Highway Patrol escorted a Prime truck carrying more than 1,000 wreaths through the state.
Prime also transported the company’s veterans to the cemetery so they could participate in the ceremony. “We are honored to participate in what has become a holiday tradition at our company,” said John Hancock, director of training and driver recruiting for Prime. “It’s our tribute to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and we hope that all fallen veterans across the country are recognized this time of year.”
I encourage everyone to be a part of this experience at least once and get a chance to remember and thank those who gave all so we can celebrate the holidays in peace.
Next year will be Arlington National Cemetery’s 150th anniversary, and Wreaths Across America has established a goal of covering every headstone in the cemetery. That number is currently more than 230,000, so it will require additional help from individuals, organizations and corporate sponsors.
“I really think it became our responsibility years ago, to do what we do,” Morrill Worcester said. “Today, I really think it is our obligation to be here.”
To help honor all who rest at Arlington National Cemetery with a wreath, donations can be made at www.TruckloadOfRespect.com.