ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. – As thousands of volunteers fanned out here this weekend, placing holiday wreaths at the white headstones as part of the “Wreaths Across America” tribute, Sheila Patton kept vigil at one particular gravesite.
Patton and her daughter stationed themselves at the grave of their son and brother, Army Staff Sgt. James R. Patton. Twenty-three-year-old “Jimmy” was serving his seventh overseas deployment since 9/11 with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, when he was killed in a helicopter crash in Tikrit, Iraq, on April 18, 2010.
Patton said she travels here from Fort Campbell, Ky., as often as possible. Patton felt a special calling, she said, to participate in the largest single venue of the nationwide “Wreaths Across America” tribute.
“This was something very important to me,” she said. “I really wanted to be here, to be a part of all this, and to be able to honor Jimmy and all the others who are buried here.”
Arriving at the cemetery early Saturday, Dec. 15, Patton and her daughter were in good company. They were among more than 25,000 volunteers who converged here in the early hours to lay an estimated 110,000 balsam fir wreaths, each adorned with a festive red bow.
“It’s amazing to see all this,” Patton said. “It’s really inspiring to see all these volunteers come out and [to] realize how much they care.”
This year’s turnout was the largest since the annual “Wreaths Across America” tradition started in 1992. Morrill Worcester, president of the Worcester Wreath Company from Harrington, Maine, began donating holiday wreaths to decorate veterans’ graves. The gesture caught on like wildfire, expanding every year to more military cemeteries nationwide.
This year, thousands of volunteers laid an estimated 400,000 evergreen wreaths at almost 800 cemeteries in all 50 states and 24 overseas sites.
At Arlington, the largest venue, a convoy of 34 trucks traveled from Maine to transport the donated wreaths.
Worcester and his wife, Karen, recognized a milestone in the “Wreaths Across America” effort as he presented the 1 millionth wreath since the program’s inception to a Gold Star family and wounded warrior.
Mary Byers and her husband, Lloyd, who lost their son, Army Capt. Joshua Byers, in Iraq in 2003, and Army Sgt. Justin Lansford, wounded in Afghanistan this past spring, placed the wreath at the grave of Wilbur Trevant, a Vietnam veteran who died in April.
Looking out over the sea of volunteers as they gathered for opening ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery’s Amphitheater, Karen Worcester challenged them to live up to the spirit reflected in Byers’ last words as he told his fellow soldiers to “keep moving forward.”
Worcester spoke about the deadly shooting in Connecticut the previous day and called on the group to take inspiration from Byers and the others buried at Arlington as they deal with life’s challenges.
“We need to take some advice from Josh and ‘keep moving forward’ with what they’ve taught us,” she said. “And we need to teach our kids about the character of America, which is to take care of each other. By taking care of each other we take care of our country and share the lesson that our heroes have taught us.”
Among the hundreds of school, church, community and veterans groups participating in this year’s “Wreaths Across America” were men and women in uniform, many of whom placed wreaths at the graves of friends killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Brian Evans, assigned to the Combat Service Support Company at The Basic School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., said he felt moved to see so many people take time out of their busy holiday schedules to honor the fallen.
“This is a chance to recognize and show others we remember those that went before,” he said. “And it really does show that the majority of the public still remembers and appreciates what we do.”
“You know the public appreciates what you do and when you see all this, it proves that they really do care,” echoed Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Andrew Boehmer from the Wounded Warrior Regiment at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Dominique Purvis, among about 50 members of the 579th Medical Group based at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C., who journeyed to Arlington to participate in the tribute, struggled for words to describe her emotions.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing,” she said. “You just can’t really understand this kind of outpouring until you see it for yourself. It’s overwhelming.”