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Wreaths Across America Escort to Arlington: Honoring our heroes

By John O'Leary

WORCESTER, MAINE to ARLINGTON, VA., DEC. 8-14—In 1992 a Maine family started a tradition of bringing 5,000 Maine-made wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery. Fast-forward 22 years to 2013 and that same family, along with thousands of volunteers, laid 143,000 wreaths at Arlington on December 15, and over 500,000 wreaths at more than 900 locations across the country, including 24 offshore sites.

This year’s Escort to Arlington left Harrington, Maine, where the Worcester Wreath Company is based, on December 8. In our convoy we had 30 tractor trailers (12 of them would be traveling to Arlington with the escort), 20 police officers from various police departments throughout Maine, Maine State Police plus fire departments from throughout the area and many support vehicles, and, of course, the Patriot Guard Riders leading the way.

Patriot Guard Riders follow behind the firefighter escort en route to Arlington

Patriot Guard Riders follow behind the firefighter escort en route to Arlington

This year we headed south on Route 1 through Maine with stops in Ellsworth, Belfast, Rockland, Freeport and ended the day at Cabela’s in Scarborough, Maine. Hundreds of people stood along the road as we headed south holding signs and cheering, “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” as we rolled past. I wish I could describe the feeling when you see a woman holding a flag box tight to her chest with tears in her eyes thanking us for what we are doing. This was my eighth year leading the convoy to Arlington, and it’s an honor I take very seriously knowing what impact the convoy has on so many.

Patriot Guard Riders lead the convoy down I-95

Patriot Guard Riders lead the convoy down I-95

Our second stop of the day was at the Bank of America building in Belfast, Maine. After a short ceremony and lunch provided by Bank of America, we headed south with a very special person joining our group: Maine’s First Lady Anne LePage. This would be Mrs. LePage’s third trip with us to bring awareness to Wreaths Across America. What made this trip special was that she vowed to ride the whole trip on the back of a motorcycle. Rich Deneka, a member of Rolling Thunder New Hampshire, agreed to take Mrs. LePage on the back of his trike. With the temperature in the mid-20’s, she got on the back of the bike and we headed south on Route 1. Except for about 20 miles in upstate New York, Mrs. LePage road the whole route on the back of the trike through rain, wind, freezing rain, snow and just about every other kind of weather you can think of. The rest of the stops in Maine included a stop in Freeport to present a wreath to the Freeport Flag Ladies to be placed on the 9/11 Memorial. Our last stop of the day was at Cabela’s in Scarborough.

The author and his wife, Bunny, stand with Maine Governor Paul LePage

The author and his wife, Bunny, stand with Maine Governor Paul LePage

It started snowing that night and the snow continued through the second day. Our first stop was at Westbrook Middle School in Westbrook, Maine. Local radio personality Ray Richardson broadcast his show live on WLOB Radio during the three-hour stop. We also involve about 800 students in this event. Before we left this stop, the principal gave me a project the students worked on the week before our arrival. Their assignment was to write about “What a Veteran Means to Me.” After the trip I sat down and read each of these letters. One overwhelming thought I had was that these kids have never known the United States when we weren’t at war; very sad.

Our second stop was at the town green in Kennebunk, Maine. This stop honors the town’s veterans, police and fire departments. At this time it was snowing pretty heavily, but the streets were lined with people cheering us on. In fact, people lined the streets, many waving flags, at various spots down Route 1 into southern Maine, past the Wells Middle School in Wells where students were out yelling and cheering and holding up flags, and at the Kittery Trading Post where we had a short ceremony and were provided lunch.

Students at Pine Grove Elementary School in Rowley, Massachusetts, greet the escort

Students at Pine Grove Elementary School in Rowley, Massachusetts, greet the escort

We continued south through New Hampshire and into Massachusetts, arriving at our next stop at the Pine Grove Elementary School in Rowley. It was raining pretty hard by then, but the students were outside welcoming us to their school, chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” and waving flags. After the ceremony we continued south to the Topsfield Fairgrounds, our last stop of the day where we had another ceremony and met General George Patton’s daughter-in-law.

As we staged for our third day the weather was very cold with snow predicted for our entire route across Massachusetts and into New York. Our first stop of the day was at the Thomas Prince Middle School in Princeton, Massachusetts, where the students greeted us in the same manner as the other schools. After a great ceremony we continued west across Massachusetts to Stanley Park in Westfield. As we exited the Massachusetts Turnpike we were greeted by more students lined along the two-mile trip to Stanley Park. Though the weather was cold and snowing, the outside ceremony was very emotional. We headed to our next stop at the Spring Lake Fire Department in Ulster, New York, and as we exited the New York Thruway we were met by a number of fire trucks that would escort us through town to the fire station. This was another very emotional stop. A Hartt Transportation trucker had the name of a Gold Star Mother’s son from Ulster put on his truck to honor his service to our country. We were served a great dinner after the ceremony that included a wreath presentation by Lt. Janine Roberts (Portland Maine PD) and retired Hampton, New Hampshire, policeman Dick Bateman to the Spring Lake FD for their 9/11 memorial. We then headed out for our overnight stay in Newburgh, New York.

An emotional wreath presentation was held at Stanley Park in Massachusetts

An emotional wreath presentation was held at Stanley Park in Massachusetts

Our fourth day finally brought the sun out as we headed south to New Jersey for our first stop of the day at Thorne Middle School in Port Monmouth. When we arrived at the school we received the same reception we had grown used to. We had a short ceremony outside at the Battle of the Bulge Memorial, as the school is named after Bud Thorne who fought and died in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. He received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during this battle. His sister Edith Knowles, a member of the Wreaths Across America Board of Directors, was on hand for the ceremony. We then headed back north for a ceremony at the Statue of Liberty, the first time we’d ever stopped there. Everyone in the escort boarded a ferry and went out to the island for the ceremony. After the ceremony we headed south again for our overnight stay in Bordentown, New Jersey.

Our first stop of the fifth day, scheduled for the Joint Base McGuire/Fort Dix Military Base in New Jersey, was cancelled due to weather-related problems on the base. This brought an unusually late start for the escort; we finally headed out around 11:00 a.m. and, that day, the escort split up. The trucks headed south to Middletown, Delaware, and the rest of the escort headed out to Valley Forge Military Academy in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The trucks do not fit on the roads around the Academy and therefore had to head to our next stop. After the ceremony at the Academy the escort headed to Middletown, Delaware, to join the trucks in a parade through town and a ceremony at the town memorial followed by a great dinner sponsored by the Gold Star Mothers of America.

Our sixth day on the escort brought nice weather: the temperature finally reached a sunny 25 degrees. Our first stop of the day was at the Stevensville American Legion in Stevensville, Maryland. As we approached the Legion hall, I saw a bunch of students running across a field from their school. They were running to greet us, so we stopped the escort and waited for the students to get to the road before we continued into the parking lot of the Legion hall. After a great breakfast put on by the Legion followed by a short ceremony, we headed out for our second stop of the day. Again, this day the escort had to split up. The trucks left first to head to the Branchville Fire Station in College Park, Maryland, where they were staged for the trip into Arlington on Saturday. The rest of the escort proceeded to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. After a short ceremony the escort proceeded to our hotel in College Park.

On Saturday, the escort gathered at the Branchville Fire Station in College Park where the fire department provided breakfast for everyone in the escort. After breakfast and a quick briefing we lined up for our trip to Arlington, about 18 miles away. As we turned onto Constitution Avenue and passed the Washington Monument, the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, a feeling of satisfaction swept over me that again for the eighth time my wife Bunny and I had led the escort from Maine to Arlington. It’s hard to describe our entrance into Arlington as we crossed the bridge and saw tens of thousands of people waiting for the escort to arrive. The estimated crowd comprised over 25,000 volunteers.

This year Wreaths Across America received record donations for wreaths from across the country. We had over 900 locations where over 500,000 wreaths were sent out. However, the donations for Arlington were not coming in like in the past. Two weeks prior we had only received about 90,000 sponsorships for wreaths for Arlington after projecting 135,000 for this year. The word got out that we were short and all the major news stations ran stories. The reaction to these stories that aired across the nation brought donations that surpassed our goal and we were able to lay 143,000 wreaths at Arlington.

Riders and tractor trailers carrying more than 140,000 wreaths arrive at Arlington National Cemetery

Riders and tractor trailers carrying more than 140,000 wreaths arrive at Arlington National Cemetery

I would like to thank the hundreds of people that were involved in making the escort to Arlington a huge success. I would especially like to thank the law enforcement community for all they did helping us move the escort from Maine to Arlington.

2014 is the 150th anniversary of Arlington National Cemetery. Wreaths Across America has vowed to cover all of the graves at Arlington in a tribute to our men and women who have served this country. We will need your help in spreading the word. Please go to www.wreathsacrossamerica.org and find out how you can help us achieve our goal.

A total of 143,000 wreaths were laid on the graves of fallen soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery

A total of 143,000 wreaths were laid on the graves of fallen soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery

 

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