It was around six years ago now that Jill Williams saw a video that would permanently alter her life.
"I don't check Facebook and my email all the time," she says, but this day Williams, then a 60-year-old account executive for a Fortune 500 company, stumbled upon a video that would summon her from her busy life in Durango, Colorado, to an eight-day pilgrimage. She would fly to Maine in the cold of December, spend a few days in the Norman Rockwell-esque town of Columbia Falls, then journey by convoy to Arlington National Cemetery. She would stop every hundred miles or so along the eastern seaboard for ceremonies of remembrance, then bed down for the night. She would break bread with bikers, cops and truckers.
She would spend hours, days on the road with others from an exclusive club she never asked to join.
Williams described the video this way: "There were hundreds of thousands of people at Arlington to greet the convoy, waving their hands and flags, and thousands of volunteers to lay the wreaths. Then it zoomed in on [one] grave. It was my son’s."
The video was produced by Wreaths Across America, an organization devoted to the coordination of wreath-laying ceremonies across the United States.
Williams' son, Warrant Officer William Joseph McCotter, had served in the prestigious Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, traditionally known as “The Old Guard.” Duties of the Old Guard include escorting the president, performing ceremonial duties around Washington, and guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.
"He was recruited for that. He fit the mold perfectly,” she said. "He left the Old Guard to become a warrant officer, and then a Black Hawk pilot."
Warrant Officer McCotter died in 2010. His remains were interred at Arlington in 2011.
"It's difficult to talk about this without getting emotional," the Gold Star Mother continued. "I came to Maine with just two goals. I wanted to pin my son's dog tag to a tree [through Wreaths’ remembrance tree program], and I wanted to lay a wreath upon his grave in Arlington."
It took a while for the trip to come together. In 2016, she began asking friends and family if there might be someone who would be willing to accompany her on her journey. Eight days was a big chunk of time. People had lives to live. She eventually found the perfect traveling companion in Gold Star Wife Janna Schaefer, also from the Durango area. "Janna said she'd be honored to make the trip with me," Williams said.
Five years and a pandemic later, they were finally on the plane.
They landed in Bangor, and were met by a couple from WAA whose sole mission was to make sure they had everything they needed. When they arrived in Columbia Falls, Williams was taken aback.
"I had no idea of the sheer magnitude" of the Wreaths operation, she said.
It's been described as something of a pop-up Fortune 500 company that springs into action three months a year. Now every third Saturday of December, by an act of Congress, it even has its own day.
WAA Transportation Director Don Queeney perhaps sums it up best: "It's become a mindset. It really has. It's a way of thinking about things – honoring our veterans on as grassroots a level as possible, [and] engaging the American public to do so. So that's the part that's really coming to the front with me. When three million people come out one day in the middle of winter and take Maine balsam wreaths and put them on a perfect stranger's headstone ... and say their names out loud."
According to Queeney, Wreaths Across America, or at least the idea behind it, began in the 1990s, almost by accident. There was a wreath maker from Maine named Morrill Worcester. "He had a contract with L.L. Bean," Queeney said, and one year, Worcester had a large surplus of wreaths. Remembering a boyhood journey to Arlington National Cemetery, he began petitioning the Maine congressional delegation to help him make arrangements for those wreaths to be placed upon the headstones of fallen soldiers. That first year, Worcester laid the wreaths himself.
Last year, according to Queeney, the organization laid wreaths at more than 3,000 locations, requiring 567 tractor-trailer loads . "I put pencil to paper the best I could ... and it's north of $5.5 million of in-kind donations from the transportation industry."
For Jill Williams, the treatment she received on her trip was almost overwhelming: "My son laid down his life for his country. [But they] treated us like royalty. It was as if we had served. I've always been patriotic, but I've never been political. In every city, there were kids waving flags, greeting us.They shut down the New Jersey Turnpike for us. There were times I felt guilty. It was he who served. He was a member of The Old Guard."
Williams plans to retire soon and contribute more time to her son's memory. "This will open up several more opportunities for me to participate in local veterans events, more Blue Star Mothers activities, and Gold Star Mothers projects. All in the hope that these efforts will honor my son Billy, and others that have fought for our freedom. May they never be forgotten."