Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Wreaths Across America: One of those ‘glad I did that’ experiences

Photo by Sandi Soendker
I got to the junction of Missouri State Highway 13 and I-70 early on Saturday. I spotted a few bikers right off, standing by their polished motorcycles in the Pilot parking lot. They were there to escort the wreaths. The group soon swelled to maybe 50 bikes from area motorcycle clubs. When they rolled off on to Highway 13 and headed north to the veterans cemetery, I was right behind.

Too bad I couldn’t shoot photos and drive at the same time because the day started off with a cold slate sky that made a somber setting for the double column of bikes ahead of me. As the riders went single file and swung into the big entrance of the veterans cemetery, acres of perfectly aligned headstones in the background, it was a freeze-frame moment.

We were there to lay Christmas wreaths. At exactly the same time – noon, Saturday, Dec. 15 – about 450,000 balsam wreaths were being dedicated in hundreds of locations across the nation, and more overseas. The wreaths honor U.S. military personnel who lost their lives in the service of our armed forces. Maybe they died a long time ago in Europe or Asia. Maybe last month in Afghanistan.

In the 21 years the Wreaths Across America program has been in existence, volunteers have placed more than a million live wreaths on the final resting places of U.S. troops. This year, more than 110,000 wreaths alone were laid on graves in Arlington National Cemetery near DC.

The WAA story is one we’ve covered for several years. We have a number of OOIDA members who drive the trucks that move all those wreaths and some who are members of the Patriot Guard Riders who escort the trucks. For them, like me, it was a poignant experience.

Each Christmas, OOIDA sponsors 10 wreaths. Last year, our Land Line Copy Editor Elizabeth Andersen went to Fort Leavenworth to be a part of the WAA program. This year, I participated by attending the ceremony planned for the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery, 55 acres located north of Higginsville, MO.

Photo by Sandi Soendker
The purpose of the ceremony in Higginsville was not to place wreaths on every one of those headstones, but to present wreaths to all as a symbol of the nation’s respect for those who sacrificed their lives to protect our freedom.

As this small ceremony was unfolding in Missouri, I was reminded that at the same time, others were participating in a wreath laying at President Kennedy’s grave followed by a ceremony that would take place at the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier).

I even thought about Normandy, where the remains of 9,387 American military heroes lie on 172 acres near Omaha Beach. As we bowed our heads in prayer in Higginsville, some clued-in Americans in Normandy were doing the same thing. Wreaths Across America also reaches France and other sacred pieces of foreign soil.

The box of greenery sent to this Higginsville location contained seven balsam wreaths with red ribbons, made by the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, ME. The ceremony was smartly conducted by the American Legion, with assistance of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. The seven wreaths were dedicated to the fallen members of the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, Marine Corps, Merchant Marines and to the more than 93,000 MIAs and POWs.

It wasn’t a long ceremony. Soon after, the bikers roared out, the crowd dispersed, the American Legion rolled up their flags, and the Gold Star families left.

The overwhelming stillness was much like I thought it would be in Arlington and more than 700 locations across the nation. Quiet and remarkably graceful, the way it might be in Normandy and Luxembourg and 22 other places around the world that participate in the wreath-laying.

The only sound was the Stars and Stripes whipping in the wind. I stayed for a bit, suspended in the sanctity of the place.