For the third year in a row, on the second Saturday of December, I traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to place Christmas wreaths on the graves of the fallen.
I'm late to the party, as some people have been coming since the early '90s, when Morrill Worcester, a wreath wholesaler from Maine, showed up at Arlington with his first tractor-trailer load of that season's leftovers.
That year, as Worcester told this year's crowd at Arlington, the reaction at the cemetery was part "You want to do what?" and "Who's gonna clean this up?" Then, a handful of volunteers spent about six hours placing 5,000 wreaths.
Times have definitely changed.
This year, about 6,000 volunteers gathered at the McClellan Arch in the cold, early morning hours to place 15,000 donated wreaths in five sections of Arlington. It would take less than two hours. The cemetery's superintendent and a Florida congressman welcomed Worcester and his wife, Karen, their three truckloads of wreaths, and the crowd.
And what was once a generous, spur-of-the-moment kindness has turned into a year-round effort for Wreaths Across America, the nonprofit arm of Worcester Wreath Co. This year, according to Wayne Merritt, who runs the nonprofit, the group collected donations for 150,000 wreaths that were used at wreath-laying ceremonies at 405 military cemeteries and monuments around the world, and on at least one U.S. Navy ship at sea.
Not all gatherings are as big as Arlington, but every site gets at least seven wreaths — representing the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines and POW/MIAs. The ceremonies are all timed to coincide with the noon placement of the day's final wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Cars, trucks and buses full of volunteers were already lined up outside Arlington's gates at 7 a.m. —and some were still waiting to get in long after the wreaths had been distributed.
As people gather, it's an odd mix of solemn occasion, celebration and reunion. To be there seems almost a duty, though certainly not a burden. It's a privilege, an honor.
Civilians and vets mingle with service members in uniform. There are couples, old and young, families with babies. A group of Catholic University alums. Other groups with their names emblazoned on leather jackets: the Patriot Guard, the Christian Motorcycle Association, Leathernecks Nation.
There are conversation and laughter as people wait to begin, but respect and dignity are paramount. Yes, this is a tourist destination in the nation's capital, but it's also an active cemetery, still sadly in the business of burying the nation's sons and daughters killed in battle. We, the day's visitors, are among people in mourning. We are intruding, yet welcome.
Ruth Stonesifer of Bucks County, Pa., lost her son Kristofor — a vegan, a philosophy major and an Army Ranger — in a helicopter accident in Pakistan a month after Sept. 11. As president of American Gold Star Mothers, Stonesifer let those assembled in Arlington know what their presence meant.
Despite the initial support when a soldier is killed, Stonesifer told the crowd, eventually the relatives panic, wondering if anyone will remember their loved one's sacrifice. But that morning in Arlington, she said later in an interview, "absolutely dispelled the fear that our sons and daughters will be forgotten.
"They may not know my son's story, but they showed up on a perfectly beautiful Saturday and paid homage."