Wayne Hanson cannot forget the man whose son’s grave did not receive a holiday wreath at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013.
“We didn’t have enough for all the graves,” says Hanson, chairman of the board for Wreaths Across America, a group that lays seasonal wreaths at military cemeteries. “His son’s grave was just on the other side of where we stopped.
“He looked at me, and said, ‘What about my son?’ ”
Now, nearly one-fourth of the 245,000 final resting places at Arlington may similarly remain bare when the group lays wreaths on December 17.
“We’re about 56,000 short,” Hanson says. “We just don’t have enough.”
For the past 25 years, Wreaths Across America has placed wreaths on service members’ graves at some 1,100 sites during the holidays. Citizens who admire the rows upon rows of wreath-bedecked headstones often assume that the U.S. government, which supplies flags for the graves on Memorial Day, provides the wreaths.
Not so, Hanson says. The wreaths are fully funded by donations. Each wreath costs $15
An Army veteran who served in Vietnam as a military police officer, Hanson remembers the struggle he felt when he came home from war.
“Our veterans weren’t treated properly,” Hanson says. “I don’t want that to happen ever again.”
That experience inspired Hence to supports others who served.
“This is a way of honoring and thanking them,” says the former MP “It’s a labor of love, to honor the fallen and their families, who have an empty seat at the table.”
The wreaths are assembled each year in Maine, and travel south via truck convoy to Arlington, Virginia.
“It’s the longest veterans’ parade in the United States,” Hanson says. “We’ll have 55 trucks packed with wreaths.”
At Arlington, the day begins with a ceremony that includes a moment of silence for the fallen. Then volunteers proceed to the various sections to place the wreaths on headstones. At Arlington, which typically pulls in tens of thousands of volunteers, the process normally takes a couple hours.
The solemn tradition holds deep meaning for the volunteers who carefully place each wreath.
“I have many friends across the nation who have family members or battle buddies laid to rest at Arlington and who are not able to visit their loved ones,” says Leta Carruth, a longtime troop supporter who has travelled to Arlington from Tennessee to take part in the ceremony. “By volunteering to lay wreaths it allows me the honor of paying my respects to these fallen heroes.”
Volunteers are encouraged to speak the service members’ names aloud, so that they will not be forgotten.
Volunteers also are asked to remember whose graves they visited, and to learn about the interred veteran.
“I consider Arlington a library,” Hanson says. “Behind every stone is a story.”
One section of Arlington is particularly compelling during wreath-laying.
“Section 60 will be a sea of families,” Carruth says of the southeast portion that serves as burial ground for military personnel who were killed in the Global War on Terror. “Many go early to stand near their loved one’s graves so that they can be sure to lay their wreath.”
The graves and nearby trees often are decorated, and surrounded by children and by people hugging, crying or sitting in chairs in quiet vigil.
“It’s just emotional overload,” Carruth says.
Hanson, who lives in Virginia and currently is in Maine to help load wreaths for the trip to Arlington, plans to lay a wreath at the grave of Chesley “Ray” Lindamood, his operations officer in Vietnam.
The former MP wants everyone at Arlington to have a wreath, so that no one will find their loved one on the other side of where the decor stops.
“It had such an impact on me, to hear that man ask about his son,” Hanson says. “How many other people will visit Arlington, and they get to the end of the row, and the wreaths stop there? What does that say? Their sacrifice doesn’t mean anything?”
Wreaths Across America will continue to accept $15 wreath sponsorships through December 14.
Supporters can donate, or sign up to be a wreath-layer at Arlington or other cemeteries, here.