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Wreaths Across America

By John O’Leary

A mission of remembrance

Patriot Guard Riders go the distance

Arlington, Va., Dec. 7–13—The weather was terrible when the six of us—Tim, Cindy, Lil, Nancy, my wife Bunny and I—arrived in Milbridge, Maine, on Friday, December 6. It had been snowing all day, and continued into the night. In spite of the bad weather, we went out to dine in a local restaurant and met up with 15 more folks from Maine, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

What were these crazy folks doing in the middle of a snowstorm? In 1992, Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine, initiated the Arlington Wreath Project, beginning with the donation of 5,000 wreaths to be draped over the headstones of our fallen veterans. In 2006, the Wreaths Across America program began to honor veterans in every state and national cemetery across the country, and the Patriot Guard Riders stepped into the official escort role.

Many dedicated PGR members traveled in all kinds of weather to help escort the wreaths down to Arlington National Cemetery. This year, four bikes led us from South Portland, Maine, to Arlington in the rain and cold. Many bikes joined us along the way, but only these four went the whole distance. The four PGR members riding these bikes—Dick Amick from Virginia, Greg Young from Connecticut, Bill Mitchell from New York and Bruce (Santa) from Connecticut—were given the honor of leading the escort into Arlington.

We arrived at Worcester Wreath Company at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday. My wife Bunny went inside to make sure the Worcester family was set and I stayed outside to help organize the convoy, load wreaths and greet the PGR members as they arrived. After a brief ceremony, we were ready to leave. We had 11 trailer trucks loaded with wreaths going to various locations across the U.S., including two trucks going to Arlington. We also had about 20 other vehicles plus 10 police cars from the Maine Emerald Society who would be escorting us for the day and a half we would be in Maine, and the local fire department leading us out of the wreath company’s parking lot. That first day, we had stops planned in Bangor, Augusta, Lewiston and Portland, Maine. After our final stop in Portland, AMVET Post 25 invited the escort to its post for supper before heading out to the hotel.

Saturday started out with Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company, and me participating in a local radio/TV talk show interview. Shortly afterward, our contingent left the hotel and made stops to present wreaths to the Scarborough Veterans home, Old Orchard Beach Elementary School, and Wells Middle School. Our last stop in Maine was at the Kittery Trading Post where we met the New Hampshire PGR who would provide us with an escort to the Massachusetts staging area, stopping at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire, along the way. Our final stop of the day was at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where the New England Patriots let us use a room at the stadium for a wreath ceremony. Just like last year, we were met at the stadium by a gentleman who gave every escort a $15 Applebee’s gift card, so we all went to Applebee’s and ate supper.

On Sunday morning, we headed back to Gillette Stadium where the Massachusetts PGR would take us to the Rhode Island staging area. We were joined by more bikes along with the Massachusetts State Police who would provide us with a police escort to our next stop at Emerald Square Mall. The Rhode Island PGR were waiting there to lead us to the Connecticut staging area. With the police ready, we all lined up and headed to our first stop of the day—the Seabee Museum in North Kingston, Rhode Island, where we held a short wreath ceremony and lunch. The Connecticut PGR escorted us to Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where the whole town turned out to welcome us. After the ceremony, we were invited to have supper at Old Saybrook High School, where we presented a wreath to the school. The high school also provided our breakfast the next day, after which we headed to our next Connecticut stop in Hamden.

On our way from Old Saybrook to Hamden, I received a phone call from the Washington, D.C., office of Maine Senator Susan Collins. Her office informed me that a resolution I had proposed to designate December 13, 2008, as Wreaths Across America Day was passed by the U.S. Senate. This resolution also stated that the PGR is the official escort for the wreaths to Arlington. When we arrived at Hamden Middle School, I asked to have a copy of the resolution faxed to me so I could read it at the assembly scheduled for this stop. No one else knew about this resolution, and when I read it, Mr. and Mrs. Worcester were very surprised and very happy. As you can imagine, it was a proud moment for Bunny and me.

We headed out for our final stop of the day at the Darien VFW Hall where we were fed and entertained by an Irish band before the wreath ceremony. On Thursday morning, we staged at the Darien VFW and met the New York PGR, who would escort us to the New Jersey staging area. At both the Rye and Mamaroneck, New York, stops, the rain forced us inside for the ceremonies, after which we placed wreaths at the town memorials.

The police did a fantastic job in New York, virtually shutting down the Cross Bronx Expressway right up to the George Washington Bridge, which was also shut down for our ride. We met up with the New Jersey PGR at the first rest area after going over the bridge, and along with the New Jersey State Police, they escorted us down the New Jersey turnpike to Pennsylvania where we met up with the Pennsylvania PGR. Our final stop of the day was in Yardley, Pennsylvania, at the Edgewood Elementary School. The weather was terrible, with high winds and heavy rain. However, when we arrived about an hour late, the entrance to the school was lined with students, parents and many townspeople. It was quite a sight.

After breakfast on Friday, we left the Sheraton Bucks County and rode to St. Martha Elementary School where we presented nine wreaths—one to the school, one to the police commissioner and seven to families of seven Philadelphia police officers killed in the line of duty. Our next Pennsylvania stop was in Oxford, a small town near the Maryland border. After a speech, a brief wreath ceremony and lunch, we continued on to the Branchville Fire Station in Maryland where we met in the hotel lounge to unwind and look forward to our trip to Arlington in the morning.

Bunny and I arrived at the staging site early Saturday morning and loaded the special wreaths that would be placed on the Kennedy family plot, the U.S.S. Maine Mast Memorial, Senator Edmund Muskie’s grave, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As we lined up to leave for the cemetery, we were joined by three Gold Star Mothers who would travel into Arlington with us. With the police and our four bikes in place leading about 20 bikes, two tractor-trailers, and about 30 other vehicles, we headed towards Arlington. When we arrived at Section 12 in the cemetery at about 7:15 a.m., people were already gathering. After a brief ceremony, the trucks were opened and the wreaths were handed out. An estimated 5,000 volunteers took about an hour and a quarter to lay all 10,000 wreaths.

We accomplished the Wreaths Across America escort with the help of many Patriot Guard Riders and many police departments, fire departments and other volunteers along the way. And for the third year, we had no safety issues. To travel 750 miles through 10 states in seven days without any incidents is a credit to the Patriot Guard Riders who plan the trip in each state we pass through.

There were so many emotional highs during the week, and so many folks appreciated our efforts, that at times it was almost overwhelming. For instance, our ride through Connecticut was quite special because of the public school students and the police and fire departments that came out to greet us all along the escort route. The St. Martha Elementary School stop was very emotional, as well. Instead of the Pennsylvania PGR presenting wreaths to the seven families of the slain Philadelphia police officers as planned, I was called up and given the honor of making the presentation. Also, one of the truck drivers who lost his son—a Bangor, Maine, police officer—to cancer was given the honor of presenting a wreath to the police commissioner. As we pulled into the school, all the children were outside waving flags and yelling, “USA! USA! USA!” They were still waving and yelling when we left. And then there was the woman in Branchville who presented me with a Gold Star Mothers flag for leading the group down from Maine. I took an American flag off a truck and replaced it with this flag of honor, at which point we cried together, honoring her son. And the excitement of the Wreaths Across America Day resolution announcement was amazing. These experiences along the way were emotionally draining, but incredibly rewarding.

With this year’s mission accomplished, we look forward to next year’s trip, when Mr. Worcester promises that he’ll bring three tractor trailers loaded with 15,000 wreaths! (www.wreathsacrossamerica.org)

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