WASHINGTON – What began 15 years ago as a fairly simple concept – a wreath maker in Maine hauling extras to Arlington National Cemetery to lay them on headstones – swelled to its largest placement this weekend as more than 2,000 volunteers honored the graves of 10,000 veterans.
They placed most of the wreaths in Section 33, final resting place for many older veterans. But it was a section of fresher graves nearby, where troops from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, that was on the minds of many.
“When you walk to Section 60,” said volunteer John Williams, whose son Jack, an infantryman, arrived in Baghdad a week ago, “you can’t help but think of him.”
Williams, 66, a Vietnam veteran, helps lead a nonprofit group that works with the Arlington Wreath Project. He traveled with a caravan that carried the wreaths from Maine, where the retired Coast Guard captain has also worked as a lobsterman and plumbing inspector.
At Arlington in Virginia Saturday, he met various people with remarkable stories, including Mary Lou Wade.
She had flown from Florida and picked up a wreath for her brother’s headstone. Inside his coffin, there wasn’t much more than a uniform and a tooth. For more than 30 years, the remains of her brother, who died in Vietnam, had not been found. Last year, after sifting through remains turned over to the United States years earlier, officials identified her brother’s tooth, in part by linking it to a DNA sample she provided.
“He’s home,” she told Williams, hugging him and pointing to her brother’s grave. “He’s home.”
Volunteers came from across the Washington area and as far away as California. As has become custom, cemetery officials designated a specific area for them to place the wreaths, this time Section 33. Volunteers could carry individual wreaths to other sections.
In Section 60, row after row filled up with wreaths, simple green circles of balsam fir with rich red bows.
Taking it all in and leaning on crutches was Army Sgt. 1st Class Patrick King, whose left foot and ankle were blown off when a makeshift bomb exploded near his Humvee in Iraq on Oct. 20. Since then, he has been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, rehabilitating.
“This is just outstanding,” he said, looking at the people walking about with wreaths.
To his left, Pat Mackin sat near her son’s grave, quietly sobbing. Navy Seal Mike McGreevy died on a rescue mission in Afghanistan two years ago. There was a wreath on his tombstone.
Suddenly, a contingent of more than three dozen schoolchildren, chaperons and a teacher arrived – from Maine. The teacher, Larry Ross, has made a point to teach his students about such veterans as McGreevy.
Before she left, Mackin and her son’s widow placed a brownie atop his tombstone, as they always do. They then gave some brownies to the group that had come so far to meet them.