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Wreaths Across America Escort to Arlington

By John O'Leary

HARRINGTON, MAINE to WASHINGTON D.C., DEC., 8-15–In 1992, Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine, had a surplus of 5,000 extra wreaths and owner Morrill Worcester decided that, instead of throwing them away, the company would place those wreaths over the graves of soldiers who had been laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. He received permission to do so, and this act of honoring our departed troops has become an annual tradition.

More than 113,000 wreaths were placed at Arlington National Cemetery this year

More than 113,000 wreaths were placed at Arlington National Cemetery this year

The Escort to Arlington is a weeklong veterans parade on wheels, leaving from Harrington, Maine, and arriving a week later at Arlington National Cemetery. Stops are made along the way to lay wreaths and honor our veterans, both living and dead. Bunny and I have been planning the escort since 2006 and it’s a massive undertaking, yet very rewarding. Both of Bunny’s sons are in the active military, and the Escort is a great way to carry out the Wreaths Across America mission—to remember, honor and teach.

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization was formed in 2007, allowing Wreaths Across America (WAA) to grow to the point where, in 2011, about 15,000 volunteers placed 90,000 wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery, with additional volunteers placing many more wreaths at military cemeteries across the country and overseas. In 2008 I wrote a resolution asking the U.S. Senate to declare the day we lay the wreaths at Arlington as National Wreaths Across America Day. To my surprise, after rewriting and putting it into Washingtonian language, the resolution passed, which included the recognition of the Patriot Guard Riders as the official escort of WAA. Every year since then I have submitted a similar resolution, which has passed each year.

Gold Star families from New Jersey are presented with wreaths during the ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial in Holmdel, New Jersey

Gold Star families from New Jersey are presented with wreaths during the ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial in Holmdel, New Jersey (Photo courtesy of Hancock County Technical Center)

Although the Escort doesn’t officially start until December 9, some events were scheduled to take place the day before. Many of us attended a sunrise service at Quoddy Head Lighthouse in northern Maine—the easternmost point in the United States. We placed a remembrance wreath as the sun started to rise. This year’s weather was like a spring morning, with waves crashing on the rocks as the invocation by Gold Star Dad Lloyd Byers was taking place. We then traveled to Washington County Community College in Calais, Maine, for a brunch and small ceremony with wreath presentations where we mingled with some of the participants that would be traveling to Arlington with us. The Bridge Ceremony in Calais takes place with American Gold Star Families exchanging a wreath with the Canadian Silver Cross families. It was very emotional as our two countries came together to honor the loss of loved ones during wartime. On the way back to Columbia Falls, several WAA Escort participants stopped at the Machias Veterans Home to present a wreath there, as well.

Veteran Cody "Spider" Pasieka of Maine presents a wreath aboard the U.S.S. New Jersey

Veteran Cody “Spider” Pasieka of Maine presents a wreath aboard the U.S.S. New Jersey

Sunday the 9th was Escort Departure Day, with all participants, some veterans and many members of the community arriving at Narraguagus High School in Harrington, Maine, for breakfast and the send-off. When we started the Escort, we had with us two PGR riders from Virginia, Wayne and Rocky, and Bill Mitchell from Long Island, New York. These three dedicated riders traveled with us the entire route, over 700 miles from Maine to Arlington. Every day PGR riders led the Escort and, in some states, we had between 50 and 70 riders leading the convoy. Bunny and I are also PGR members, and I act as the PGR ride captain for the entire Escort to Arlington.

We left the school with over 30 tractor-trailer trucks, police cruisers, sheriff’s patrol cars, many support vehicles and a bus with Gold Star and Blue Star families, as well as veterans, all headed for Arlington and a weeklong journey of remembering, honoring and teaching along the way. Our first stop was in Holden, Maine, to see a 93-year-old World War II veteran lay a wreath on a memorial at the East Holden Elementary School. We continued on to Dysart’s Truck Stop where a large crowd had gathered to honor the convoy and those who have served. We had several guest speakers and wreath presentations to town representatives for the town’s memorials. Next was the Waterville Elks Club where the Elks served the convoy a nice lunch. Wreath presentations were done by Lola and Miles Worcester, the 2- and 4-year-old grandchildren of Morrill and Karen Worcester. We had a nice flag line of people upon both our arrival and our departure.

Bunny O'Leary, Grand Marshal and American Gold Star Mothers President Mary Byers and her husband, Gold Star Dad Dr. Lloyd Byers

Bunny O’Leary, Grand Marshal and American Gold Star Mothers President Mary Byers and her husband, Gold Star Dad Dr. Lloyd Byers

Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine, was our next stop. The Portland Fire Department draped an American flag over the road as we entered the street and a large crowd was on hand to greet us and thank us as we passed under the flag. This scenario, along with much cheering and waving of banners, signs and flags, as well as grand welcomes by veterans, police and fire departments, was repeated many times throughout the Escort. We attended a ceremony inside the high school where the keynote speakers were two World War II veterans—one a member of the Tuskegee flight crew. A flag-folding exercise was performed by Bunny’s son, TSgt. Bryan Martin, and another member of his unit, while Portland Police Officer Kevin Haley read what each fold stands for. Performer Don Campbell and Tonya Shevenell closed out the wreath presentations with Don’s song Snow at Arlington.

As we entered the parking lot at Cabela’s, our last stop of the day, hundreds of people clapped, yelled and cheered. This, too, was a great stop with wreath presentations—including one for a PGR member who was always involved with the Escort and had passed this year. Bunny also presented a wreath to PFC Barry Smith’s parents. PFC Smith’s dad serves with Bunny’s son, SSgt. Ray MacGregor in the 243rd EIS Air National Guard unit.

The first stop on December 10 was at Westbrook Middle School, where Ray Richardson of WLOB radio and WPME TV was broadcasting live. Interviews were conducted with the police escort, American Gold Star Mothers President Mary Byers, Maine’s First Lady Ann LePage, Karen and Morrill Worcester, and some tech students who were traveling on the Escort for live feeds and learning media tools along the way. The First Lady also rode on the back of a motorcycle into Arlington National Cemetery later in the week.

In Kennebunk, Maine, we held a town green memorial wreath presentation attended by people from several communities. The next stop at Wells Middle School was as close to what is done at Arlington as you can get. Kids received wreaths from the back of one of the trucks and placed them on 50 veteran’s graves in the cemetery across from their school. Kittery Trading Post in Kittery, Maine, was our next stop where we are always welcomed with open arms. This year we presented wreaths to some wounded heroes from the current conflict. Don and Tonya were presented a wreath from the Young Marines Group, as Don’s dad was a Marine. The next stop at Topsfield Fairgrounds in Topsfield, Massachusetts, included lunch and wreath presentations. One of the speakers was Mrs. Joanne Patton, General George Patton’s daughter-in-law. Our last stop of the day was Auburn, Massachusetts, where the Elks Club had a wonderful evening meal for us. Wreath presentations were also made for all the memorials in the Veterans Corridor in Auburn.

December 11 saw the introduction of two new stops, with the first at Stanley Park in Westfield, Massachusetts. Wreath

A wreath rests on a firefighter's motorcycle before being placed

A wreath rests on a firefighter’s motorcycle before being placed (Photo by Jennifer Wilbanks)

presentations and readings by area high school students took place at the Veterans Memorial in the park. The next stop was the Spring Lake Fire Department in Ulster, New York, where the fire department had made up T-shirts for the participants. Wreath presentations were made to a Gold Star Mom and Dad, the firehouse, and for their newly constructed 9/11 memorial fabricated from some of the World Trade Center steel.

On the 12th we traveled through New Jersey, but with heavy hearts, as Liberty State Park, one of the scheduled stops, was closed until further notice due to Hurricane Sandy. We pressed on to Holmdel, New Jersey, to the Vietnam Memorial. Although this area was also hit by the hurricane, we were able hold a very emotional wreath presentation and enjoy the lunch provided by Jersey Mike’s.

The USS New Jersey, the most decorated battleship in U.S. history, was our first stop on the 13th. The ship is docked in Camden, New Jersey, and is designated as a National Park. We had a wreath presentation on the deck of the ship, and after the ceremony we headed across the Ben Franklin Bridge to Philadelphia. The next stop was the Christ Church where George Washington, Ben Franklin and many patriots had attended services a century earlier. At that site, we presented wreaths to three families of fallen Philadelphia police officers who were killed in the line of duty in 2012. From there we went to the Philadelphia Vietnam Memorial and the Korean Memorial. A young 70-percent disabled veteran who is now a park ranger wanted a wreath placed in another landmark, so he arranged for the Worcesters, and the WAA Grand Marshal and American Gold Star Mothers President Mary Byers to go to George Washington Memorial Park where Mary placed a wreath.

Patriot Guard Riders lead the Escort to Arlington

Patriot Guard Riders lead the Escort to Arlington
(Photo by Jennifer Wilbanks)

Middletown High School in Middletown, Delaware, was the first stop on the 14th, where Gold Star Dad Lloyd Byers spoke about his son Joshua who was killed in Iraq on July 23, 2003, his mother’s birthday. The Gold Star families were asked to come onstage and talk about their heroes. As they held each other’s hands they stated each name, rank, date and place of loss. As we departed we placed a wreath on a marker outside the school for one of the students killed in the current conflict. As we all took a moment, a big flock of geese circled in a V shape overhead, and one Gold Star Mom said, “There are our boys.” It was an incredibly emotional moment.

After we departed the school we headed to Stevensville, Maryland Legion Post 278 where Scott and Lorna Harris, our Gold Star parents from Maine, spoke about how much it meant to them for Scott to be the Wreath 1 transport all the way from Maine. We could not see anyone more deserving than a Gold Star Mom and Dad, owners and operators of their own truck from Maine, carrying Maine balsam wreaths to Arlington. From Stevensville, the convoy split up due to inspections at Annapolis Naval Academy. The trucks traveled to Branchville Fire Department in College Park, Maryland, where they parked for the night and the rest of the convoy went to the U. S. Naval Academy for a wreath presentation.

Saturday the 15th was the final day of the Escort, and it started with a breakfast served up by the Branchville Fire Department. The Escort left for Arlington for the scheduled 8:45 a.m. arrival time. We had the nine tractor-trailer trucks that left Maine with us on December 9, plus another 24 tractor-trailers that left Harrington on the 13th bound for Arlington. Thousands of people lined the streets awaiting the arrival of the 33 trucks and the rest of the convoy, with the Patriot Guard Riders leading the way

It took over 20,000 volunteers to lay over 113,000 wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery, which is part of the 420,000 wreaths worldwide—the largest amount to date. Another major milestone was reached this year—the laying of the one-millionth wreath at Arlington, which was placed by Grand Marshal and Gold Star Mothers President Mary Byers, her husband, Gold Star Dad Lloyd Byers, and wounded serviceman Sgt. Justin Lansford.

Thanks to Morrill and Karen for the vision they had to help us remember those who gave so much so that we can live in the greatest country in the world. We shall all remember, honor and teach.


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