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Wreaths Across America 2011

By John O’Leary

In 1992 a small wreath company from Harrington, Maine, started a tradition that has carried on for two decades. The Worcester Wreath Company brought 5,000 wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery in 1992 because they made extra wreaths that year and didn’t want to throw them away. They received special permission to lay the wreaths at the cemetery. Nearly 20 years later they brought over 90,000 wreaths to Arlington.Through the efforts of founder Morrill Worcester, Wreaths Across America became a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in 2007, and in 2010 the group and its national network of volunteers laid over 220,000 memorial wreaths—including the tens of thousands placed in Arlington Cemetery—at 545 locations in the U.S. and elsewhere.

On Saturday, December 3, prior to the departure of the 2011 Escort to Arlington, Wreaths Across America presented wreaths to all six of Maine’s veterans homes, and also presented wreaths to our Canadian neighbors during a ceremony in Calais, Maine, to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

Sunday, the Wreaths Across America convoy left Harrington with about 30 tractor-trailer trucks, Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles and 50 support vehicles along with our police escort. At one point the convoy stretched over three miles. We had three stops in Maine this first day—one at the Hermon Elementary School in Hermon, a stop at Cheverus High School in Portland, and one in Scarborough at the Cabela’s store. When we arrived at the scheduled rest stop in Gardiner, the Maine Patriot Guard had members standing in a flag line. At this stop we were honored by the first lady of Maine, Mrs. Ann LePage, who joined the escort and would travel with us all the way to Arlington. All of the stops had hundreds of people who came out to honor our men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

When we left the staging area the next morning the weather was clear, just like the day before. First Lady LePage rode on the back of a Patriot Guard Rider’s motorcycle and stayed there until we reached our stop in Kittery. And in spite of the cold, hundreds of people lined Route 1 to watch the convoy roll by. Our stops in Maine that day included Kennebunk, Wells and finally Kittery. We also made two Massachusetts stops—the Topsfield Fairgrounds in Topsfield and in Auburn for a wreath ceremony and an overnight stay.

December 6 saw us riding through Massachusetts on the way to our first stop at Orange County Choppers in Newburgh, New York, to honor the OCC crew for all they do for our men and women in uniform. Our next stop was at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Although it was raining, the stop at West Point was very emotional as one of the Gold Star Mothers with us was able to place a wreath on her son’s grave at the West Point Cemetery.

It was still raining on the ride’s fourth day as we headed south towards New York City. Because of the number of trucks in the caravan we had to travel east across the Tappan Zee Bridge, turn south toward New York City and east again, crossing over the Hudson River into New Jersey by way of the George Washington Bridge. Our first stop of the day was at Liberty State Park in Jersey City where we were met by hundreds of people waiting for our arrival. The local fire department had draped a flag above the road, adding to the great view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline. Our final New Jersey stop was at the Vietnam Memorial in Holmdel where another emotional ceremony was held. The last ceremony of the day was in Yardley, Pennsylvania, for annual stop at the Edgewood Elementary School. As always, upon our arrival the kids were outside waving flags and yelling, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

After two days of rain, the sun finally came out again on Thursday. Our first stop of the day was at the Philadelphia Charter High School. As we arrived all the students were outside waiting for us and cheering. They served breakfast to the entire convoy, followed by a great ceremony. The color presentation was conducted by a group of World War II veterans, the oldest honor guard we have ever met. We also presented a wreath to a Philadelphia police officer who, in August, lost her son while he was protecting our freedoms. Our last Pennsylvania stop was at the Valley Forge Military Academy. The ceremony, held in the Academy’s chapel, was very military in nature and showcased the cadets. After the ceremony we headed for our overnight stop in Middletown, Delaware. This was the first time the convoy had gone through that state, and the Delaware police met us at the border along with the Delaware Patriot Guard Riders.

Our first stopover on the sixth day of the escort was at the Middletown High School in Middletown, Delaware. At this location we laid a wreath at the memorial for LCPL Tony Roberts, a graduate of Middletown High School who was killed in 2004 during the War on Terror. We were able to meet with his mother and also learn a lot about his days at the school. We then headed south to Stevensville, Maryland, where we took a break at the local American Legion Hall for lunch served up by Post 278.

The next stop was at the World War II Memorial in Annapolis, Maryland. Unfortunately the trucks were unable to accompany the rest of the convoy to this position since there was no room for the vehicles to park or turn around. My wife Bunny and I, along with the Maryland State Police, escorted the trucks to College Park. I need to thank the Maryland State Police who did an outstanding job, splitting up with half of them escorting the convoy to the World War II memorial and the remainder escorting the trucks to College Park. The MSP later escorted the last of the convoy to our hotel in College Park.

The final day of the Escort to Arlington began with a breakfast provided by the Branchville Fire Department in Maryland. We then headed out to Arlington National Cemetery for a 7:45 a.m. arrival time. But something very strange happened on our way to Arlington from College Park. One of the trailer trucks carrying the wreaths from Hartt Transportation broke down about five miles outside of Arlington. The driver said it just quit on him and all the dashboard lights were blinking. It finally started back up and he continued on. He told us that every 40 seconds his truck died but restarted. When he arrived at Arlington, he made it to his location where the truck finally died for good. Everyone in the convoy believes that the wreaths in the back of the truck brought him into Arlington.

When we arrived at the cemetery there were already thousands of people there waiting to greet us. This was my sixth year of leading the convoy into Arlington and it was by far the most emotional in terms of the number of people that were there to meet us. Approximately 15,000 volunteers placed approximately 90,000 wreaths this day. Believe it or not, the wreaths were laid in about an hour. We also laid wreaths at the Pentagon, the Vietnam Wall, the World War II Memorial and the Korean Memorial.

At the conclusion of the ceremonies, Bunny said to me, “This is our sixth year planning the escort. During these years, one or both of our sons have been deployed. I want to thank you for your support personally. I have watched you heal and we have shared some emotional times together. I look forward to planning future Wreaths Across America escorts with you.”

I would like to thank all the volunteers who made this year’s 20th anniversary trip to Arlington so special. As the Patriot Guard Ride Captain for the Escort to Arlington project, I’d like to send special thanks to all the police and fire departments, and most importantly the Patriot Guard Riders in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

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