Christmas arrived just in time this year for the group that lays holiday wreaths on headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. As PEOPLE highlighted less than two weeks ago, the nonprofit Wreaths Across America did not have enough wreaths to cover nearly one-fourth of the 245,000 final resting places at Arlington.
By Saturday, though, generous donors — including Cub Scout packs, Girl Scout troops, high school football teams and a 4-H Club — rallied to make sure all of Arlington was covered for the annual Wreaths Across America Day.
“To know that no veteran will go without being honored and remembered at Arlington again this year, prevents a family member who comes to visit their loved one from asking, ‘What about my son?’ when they see no wreath,” says Wayne Hanson, the group’s chairman of the board.
More than 44,000 volunteers turned up despite wintry conditions to lay the wreaths.
“To see all these people come together, from all walks of life, with different opinions and politics and religions, in the cold and freezing rain, to join us here and across the country to say thank you to our veterans, proves we aren’t all that different,” says Karen Worcester, the group’s executive director. “We’re all grateful Americans.”
The day brought a range of emotions to those who took part.
“I came out here so I can spend a little bit of Christmas with my guys,” Army Sergeant Chad Longell tells PEOPLE. “They can’t spend Christmas with their families, so I came here. I spent Christmas with them when we were deployed. To put a wreath on their graves meant so much to me.”
Last weekend was the first time Longell saw the grave of his friend Tom Saunders, who was one of 11 service members who died in March 2015 in a helicopter crash near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
“The last time I was this close to him was in Afghanistan,” he says.
While laying the wreaths, Longell met some of his fallen friends’ wives, children and parents.
“It was nice to be able to tell them how awesome their fathers, sons and husbands were,” Longell adds. “I was able to tell them all the ridiculous stories of being deployed with their family members.”
The wreath-laying held meaning for those who have not personally served as well.
“I must confess that it was a deep emotional moment for me just to see the vast cemetery for the first time,” says Manassas, Virginia, resident Scott Hammack, who tells PEOPLE he attended out of a sense of honor and duty. “Those men and women served our nation, and from a guy whose dream was to serve, but cannot come true for various reasons, it is the least I can do to show respect for those long from this Earth.”
The feeling brings volunteers back, year after year.
“It is difficult to describe the feeling of walking into Arlington National Cemetery at 6 a.m. in the total darkness among the graves of our fallen heroes,” as is “the feeling of standing at the Tomb of the Unknowns as the sun rises,” says repeat volunteer Marc Sehring of Warrenton, Virginia. “It is amazing to open our 40-foot trailer packed with wreaths and begin the process of handing them out.”
The annual event includes speaking aloud the names of the fallen.
“It is so important to tell the volunteers to say the name on the grave when they place the wreath to honor and remember those laid there,” Sehring says.
Wreaths Across America held similar events on Saturday at 1,228 locations, laying 1.2 million remembrance wreaths nationwide.
The overall process is heartening, Longell says.
“It goes to show how deeply patriotic this country is,” Longell says. “We’re one country here, remembering those who gave everything so that we can have everything. That’s why I come out here.”