ARLINGTON, Va. -- Eight days before Christmas, holiday wreaths now adorn nearly a quarter-million grave markers at the nation's most famous military cemetery.
Tens of thousands of volunteers helped distribute the evergreen ornaments on a bitterly cold Saturday morning; Northwest Arkansas companies helped haul the balsam fir arrangements from Maine to suburban Washington, D.C.
Similar ceremonies were planned at 1,400 sites around the world, including veterans cemeteries in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Fort Smith, Fayetteville and Birdeye.
By day's end, 1,565,355 wreaths had been placed on veterans' graves, according to Wreaths Across America spokesman Amber Caron.
At Arlington, the patriotic multitudes who volunteered to lay the wreaths filled the subway and clogged the highway, delaying the wreath-carrying convoy by nearly 30 minutes.
After passing through security checkpoints, they spread out across the 624-acre burial site, lining up behind 65 semitrucks that dotted the cemetery.
It took volunteers just 53 minutes to unload a Wal-Mart trailer parked within eyesight of the Pentagon. A youth baseball team from southern Maryland worked nonstop at that truck to distribute the cargo: 5,400 wreaths.
On a hillside with sweeping views of the Washington Monument, members of the Michigan State Society quickly unpacked a Tyson truck.
In the distance, hundreds of visitors scooped up wreaths from a J.B. Hunt truck adorned with images of bald eagles, dog tags, the American flag and a variety of military vehicles.
The truck driver, Roland Parent of New Jersey, pointed to one of the images, which showed troops parachuting out of a military plane.
"My dad was in Korea. That was his job. He was a paratrooper," Parent said. "Today's Dec. 16, and he passed away on Dec. 16 , so it's kind of fitting to be here today."
One of the volunteers, Tim Gallagher of Florida, thanked the driver and then explained why Saturday's delivery was so meaningful.
"This guy brought my son's wreath," he said.
Spc. Matthew Gallagher, who lived from Dec. 17, 1982, until June 9, 2015, is among those buried at Arlington.
"Tomorrow's his birthday," his father said.
When truckers drive from the forests of New England to the hallowed ground of Arlington, "they're not just carrying wreaths. They're carrying a symbol of the nation's pride," he said.
Many of those who braved Saturday's below-freezing temperatures said they were there to honor fallen service members and the families they left behind.
Volunteers began amassing outside the cemetery before dawn, and by 7:30 a.m., thousands were already waiting.
The gates opened at 8:30 a.m., and at 9:15 a.m., the wreath distribution officially began.
It took less than two hours to distribute most of the wreaths at Arlington.
A tag attached to each tribute said, "Today, I placed a wreath on the grave of an American hero."
Special wreath-layings were held at the cemetery's Section 60, the final resting place for many who fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another ceremony took place at the grave of President William Howard Taft. A separate wreath-laying took place at President John F. Kennedy's burial place. The final wreath-laying occurred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at noon.
Wreaths Across America estimates 80,000 volunteers placed 246,700 wreaths at Arlington on Saturday.
At some of the newer headstones, family members gathered to place wreaths, mourn and remember.
Volunteers with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors were on hand to offer comfort and hot coffee. Counselors and mental-health professionals were also available.
Wreaths Across America traces its roots to 1992. That year, Worcester Wreath Co.'s supply exceeded its demand, so the company's owner, Morrill Worcester, shipped 5,000 of the evergreen crowns to Arlington National Cemetery.
In the years that followed, the Harrington, Maine, entrepreneur continued shipping a truckload of wreaths to Arlington. Initially, the effort attracted little attention.
But that changed in 2005, when a photo of the wreaths at Arlington was widely seen on the Internet. After that, things began to snowball.
In 2008, after hearing about the wreath-layings from its employees in Maine, Wal-Mart decided to get involved.
The company helped get wreaths for every gravestone at the veterans cemetery in Fayetteville that year, according to Patrick Simmons, senior director of Sam's Club logistics.
The company also sent wreaths to New York City, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. -- one for every victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The company also helped transport wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery.
The convoy in 2008 was smaller, and the crowds were nonexistent, said Nate Lewis, a Wal-Mart general transportation manager stationed in Maine.
"We went to the cemetery with three trucks and we unloaded them ourselves," he recalled.
Wal-Mart employees were enthusiastic about the project and eager to continue volunteering; the Bentonville-based company has been a supporter ever since.
Since 2008, Wal-Mart has donated nearly $2.9 million for wreaths, company officials said. It also has provided transportation valued at $1.75 million.
This year, the company delivered more than 100,000 wreaths to Virginia, Arkansas, the District of Columbia and 11 other states.
The wreaths passed through 40 Wal-Mart distribution centers. One hundred Wal-Mart drivers helped to carry the load.
J.B. Hunt of Lowell, which signed on in 2014, also has been one of the program's biggest donors. This year, it hauled 18 loads of wreaths, delivering them as far away as California.
Tyson Foods got involved five or six years ago, spokesman Pat Bourke said. This year, its trucks transported eight loads of wreaths.
In an email, Caron of Wreaths Across America said the assistance is vital.
"This was more than 500 loads of wreaths provided by nearly 250 trucking companies. Without the support of the transportation industry, we just would not be able to do what we do," she said. "Companies like Walmart, who have been involved since the beginning, never back down from a challenge. If wreaths need to get there, they'll make it happen."
J.B. Hunt has also been a "true transportation partner," she said.
Caron also singled out Tyson Foods of Springdale for its commitment over the years.
"Tyson not only provides transportation services, but they come out and feed our truck drivers coming through Maine and just do so much for the program," she said.
Lewis, the Wal-Mart general transportation manager, said it's nice to accompany a truckload of wreaths.
"It actually smells great. The Maine balsam fir, it's fantastic," he said.
Given the number of volunteers, Lewis no longer lays wreaths on the tombs himself. Instead, he takes photos of veterans' gravestones for families that have requested them.
"The ones that couldn't be here and wanted to be here and they want to see the headstones decorated. I will do that," he said.
It takes nearly a week for the trucks to make the 700-mile journey from Maine to Washington, D.C.
Along the way, the convoy stops at schools, giving students a chance to reflect on the sacrifices soldiers make.
Whenever they stop at a Wal-Mart distribution center, they hold a wreath handoff ceremony, pausing to honor the Wal-Mart veterans employed there.
Once the wreaths arrive at Arlington and elsewhere, Wal-Mart employees help distribute them.
The wreaths, Lewis said, honor not only to the dead but also those that mourn them.
"We want them to know that we haven't forgotten," he said.
Ken Lai of Berryville, Va., pauses Saturday after placing a wreath at a headstone in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., as part of Wreaths Across America.
Jaysen Hollis of Bentonville holds a flag along with his fellow Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts during the 25th anniversary of Wreaths Across America on Saturday at the Fayetteville National Cemetery.
Several thousand people were on hand to place more than 8,000 wreaths on graves during the 25th anniversary of Wreaths Across America on Saturday at the Fayetteville National Cemetery.
Metro on 12/17/2017
Print Headline: In day's endeavor, 1.5 million wreaths placed to honor fallen