Monday, December 12, 2011

Wreaths at Fort Leavenworth

Another successful “Truckers for Troops” campaign has drawn to a close, and naturally many of us at OOIDA are thinking of the troops in combat zones. But veterans are also very much on our minds. In the past month, there have been a number of stories on an event called “Wreaths Across America.”

Fort Leavenworth cemetery
(Photo by Grant Andersen)
The latest Land Line story was about the U.S. Senate unanimously passing a resolution to designate Saturday, Dec.10 as “Wreaths Across America Day.”

“Wreaths Across America” took place this past Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery and at more than 700 cemeteries in all 50 states where almost 325,000 wreaths were placed at the tombstones of veterans.

Having read so much about this tradition started 20 years ago by the owners of the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, ME, I wanted to participate this year. And I wanted to do so at the historic Fort Leavenworth cemetery in Kansas, one of the original 14 national cemeteries.

Saturday was a cold, sunny day as my 24-year-old son, Grant, and I set out.

We pulled up to the military base checkpoint and noted that all the vehicles in the visitor lane were being inspected, especially a pickup loaded with hay. My car was full of papers, magazines and books – the normal detritus of a copy editor’s commute.

Commemorative wreath (Photo by Grant Andersen)
When I showed our driver’s licenses, I was asked why we were going on base. When I said we were attending the laying of wreaths ceremony for “Wreaths Across America,” the soldier stepped back, wished us a nice day and waved our uninspected car on.

We parked and were bemused to see half a dozen young people in Revolutionary War uniforms pile out of an SUV and grab their weapons. They were the color guard for the ceremony, members of the Junior ROTC corps at Leavenworth High school.

Near the flagpole we were soon surrounded by riders of the Kansas Patriot Guard, Gold Star mothers (whose sons or daughters died while serving the nation), soldiers and veterans in uniform, and other members of the public.

Placing of the wreaths. (Photo by Elizabeth Andersen)
The brief ceremony, which was timed to coincide with the Arlington event, included the color guard, a moment of prayer, and the ceremonial laying of eight wreaths commemorating each branch of the military, prisoners of war and those identified as missing in action, and Gold Star families.

We were invited to lay wreaths on graves in a specific section of the cemetery.

As Diana Pitts, a Gold Star mother and the organizer of the ceremony, told the Fort Leavenworth Lamp newspaper, “It’s important to place a wreath on someone’s grave that hasn’t been visited in awhile. ... When it comes to veterans, it’s important to do our best job to recognize all of them, to bring remembrance to those whose Christmases can no longer be spent here on Earth.”

It was moving to see people standing in line quietly to receive the wreaths and saying thank you every time before walking to the graves and carefully placing the wreaths at the base of the tombstones.

A moment of remembrance. (Photo by Elizabeth Andersen)
My son and I each placed three wreaths and then were reluctant to leave. It was a beautiful sight: the serried rows of white tombstones enlivened by the greenery and red ribbons, the dress blues and camouflage of uniforms, the Patriot Guards’ motorcycle gear and children’s colorful winter coats.

There was such reverence about the scene that I was reminded of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC in 2002. My sons were teenagers, and their father had served stateside in the Navy during the Vietnam War. I remember when the Wall was designed the controversy over Maya Lin’s design and how it was derided as a “gash in the earth.”

My sons and I had watched a documentary about the Wall, so we were prepared. I was not prepared, however, for tears to start running down my face as we walked downward beside the polished black granite and listened to the hushed voices around us and saw people reaching forward to touch their loved ones’ names.

That’s how I felt this past Saturday at Fort Leavenworth. You had to be there.