Both young and old appreciate the wreaths provided to national, state, and community cemeteries across the country. (Courtesy of Wreaths Across America)
Wreaths Across America Honors US Veterans
How one couple’s act of patriotism turned into a national annual event
BY DAVE PAONE, OCTOBER 25, 2022
The Epoch Times
In 2008, more than 60,000 volunteers placed 100,000 wreaths on veterans’ headstones nationwide. Recognizing the impact, the U.S. Congress unanimously voted to declare National Wreaths Across America Day to be held annually on the second or third Saturday of December.
A total of 60,000 volunteers and 100,000 wreaths didn’t just come together overnight. It was a grassroots movement that started with a married couple’s desire to honor our nation’s deceased veterans in December 1992.
As the owners of a wreath-making company in Harrington, Maine, the couple found themselves with a large surplus of inventory. With the help of then-Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and a volunteer with a truck, the husband and two of his teenage children made the 13-hour trek to Arlington National Cemetery to lay 5,000 wreaths on the graves of fallen Civil War veterans.
They didn’t know it at the time, but this act would soon be repeated nationwide by far more people than just the four of them.
The genesis of Wreaths Across America actually occurred decades earlier in 1962, when 12-year-old Morrill Worcester, a paperboy for the Bangor Daily News in Maine, won a trip to Washington. While there, Arlington National Cemetery became an inspirational location for him.
Decades later, Morrill founded Worcester Wreath Co. He and his wife, Karen, were the couple that laid the wreaths in Arlington in 1992.
To this day, Morrill’s pilgrimage as a preteen serves as a consistent reminder to him that opportunities stem from the values and freedom afforded to us by our nation’s veterans.
Each December following 1992, the Worcesters continued to lay wreaths in Arlington.
In 2005, a photograph by a Pentagon photographer of Arlington covered in snow and adorned with wreaths circulated on the internet, starting on the Pentagon’s website. It “went viral” long before the term was coined.
Soon after, thousands of requests poured in via email and phone calls from people wanting to help emulate the Arlington success at the local level, prompting the official formation of Wreaths Across America as a national nonprofit in 2007.
Wreaths Across America currently conducts ceremonies at nearly 3,500 locations in all 50 states, as well as abroad and at sea. Last year, it placed 2.4 million wreaths and anticipates placing more than 2.7 million this year.
“We do most of the national cemeteries, we do most of the state cemeteries, but our largest growth is in community cemeteries,” Karen told The Epoch Times. “It brings communities together.”
Saying the Names
Banksy, the British street artist, once said, “They say you die twice: one time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
With that sentiment in mind, when a volunteer lays a wreath at a marker in a cemetery, he says the name of the veteran out loud and thanks him for his service and sacrifice, thus preventing his second death.
Making It Happen
This year’s Wreaths Across America Day is Dec. 17, and the cost to sponsor a wreath is a donation of $15. The charity has a “five-dollar back program,” where $5 of the $15 is donated to a local civic group, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion.
“Through that program, we’ve given back into communities over $18 million to date,” said Karen, who serves as the charity’s executive director.
Coordinating tens of thousands of volunteers and 100,000 wreaths for a one-day event is an enormous undertaking.
For starters, they need the wreaths. Although Morrill founded the charity and owns a wreath-making company, he’s not an officer of the 501(c)3, and he’s not a board member, either. He submits a bid each year through a third party, and whichever company is chosen to supply the wreaths is paid for them.
But perhaps the unsung heroes of the operation are the truckers who transport the wreaths to the far corners of the nation, paying for the fuel out of their own pockets.
“If we didn’t have 95 percent of the delivery donated by truck drivers and trucking organizations, it would cost more to deliver them than it ever would to make them,” Karen said about the truckers.
These days, when the Worcesters make the December trip from Maine to Arlington, it’s no longer a 13-hour drive in one truck. It’s a week-long journey (stopping to meet with various groups along the way) with 150 or more people in a convoy of trucks and buses, often with police and motorcycle escorts, which Karen refers to as a “hoopla.”
“We went through one city; they had 800 kids on the side of the road with American flags hollering, ′USA!′” Karen said.
She noted that on that occasion, the buses carried Gold Star mothers and wives, who said the actions of those children made them proud and helped them to heal.
Youth for Troops
Wreaths Across America also depends on local sponsors.
One such local sponsor is Youth for Troops in Phoenix. It’s a youth-led, service-focused nonprofit that offers community service opportunities for all ages to support veterans and deployed service members. It has been sponsoring Wreaths Across America since 2017, with 25 or more volunteers laying wreaths in the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona each December.
“We were especially honored to place wreaths the last two years on all of the killed-in-action markers at our local cemetery,” Tonya Piatt, one of the Youth for Troops founders, told The Epoch Times. “This is especially meaningful because we know the brother, also a veteran, of one of these heroes.”
Hannah Piatt, Tonya’s daughter and another founder of the nonprofit, told The Epoch Times that “it means a whole lot more when you can put a face to the family.”
Tonya is also acquainted with the fallen soldier’s mother and surviving brother.
“He takes his mom out there to visit, and to know that the wreath was waiting for them is nice,” she said.
In addition to volunteering to place the wreaths each December, a smaller group of volunteers from Youth for Troops returns to the cemetery each January to retire the wreaths and brush any detached needles off the markers.
Tonya’s other daughter, Heather Piatt, is also a founder of Youth for Troops. When she lays a wreath on a grave, she looks at the veteran’s birth and death dates and calculates his age in her head. At 20 years old, many of the fallen were roughly her age, and she assumes they most likely had plans for a career and family, just as she does now.
“I can’t imagine not wanting to take a few moments out of my day to respect that and honor that and say their names, so their family knows that these 18, 19, 20-year-olds aren’t forgotten for their sacrifices,” she told The Epoch Times.
While Youth for Troops volunteers on the local level in Phoenix, Tonya is glad to be part of a national movement.
“There are opportunities for people and families in every part of the region to volunteer on that December date,” she said. “It’s a great thought that all of these people are volunteering on the same day to honor our heroes.”
This past Saturday the US Army Band promoted the campaign during their annual Christmas concert: