On December 13th, I had the pleasure of boarding a tour bus in Columbus, Ohio, and driving with a group to Washington, D.C.. Our mission was to be 54 of the thousands of volunteers who converge on Arlington National Cemetery to lay wreaths on the headstones.
There was much press the week of the trip as to reduced donations for the program, Wreaths Across America. Apparently 90,000 wreaths were laid for Christmas 2012, and less were expected this year due to the money shortage. However, I supposed due to the press there were last minute mega contributions, and a whopping 120,000 wreaths were laid on December 14th.
My friend Lillian and I did not know what to expect. I have been to Washington and Arlington many times, but had never participated in the Wreaths Across America day, nor had I ever even set foot on the grass there. We left Columbus at 9:00 PM (2100 hours for you GIs) and went southeast to Athens and Coolville, Ohio to pick up the trip coordinator and other passengers. A crowded and uncomfortable seat kept me awake most of the trip. At 4:45 in the morning we walked into a Denny's Restaurant in Maryland and ate. We were all surprisingly awake and excited.
Less than an hour later we watched the sun rise as we pulled into the gates at Arlington. There the tour guide, Alan Wallace, had arranged donuts and coffee for us at the Women in Military Service Memorial building (which is immediately outside the gates of the cemetery). After some munching we began a three hour walking tour of the majestic cemetery. Alan led us and oh my the details he knew about the cemetery! Holy Cow. We saw the headstone of the pilot of the plane that was viciously flown into the Pentagon, JFKs eternal flame, a winter version of the changing of the Guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and more. (see the photos area for many of my pictures).
From the top of the hill at Arlington House (Robert E. Lee's former mansion), we could see and hear the motorcade of semi trucks full of the wreaths. The trucks spaced out around the cemetery, pulling close to the sections which were designated to get wreaths this year. I do not know how they choose which sections get wreaths and which don't, but I know they always include Section 60, where the newly fallen veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars lay.
We were told we might get to lay one wreath or a few, it just depended on the number of volunteers. Surprisingly, I was able to pay respects to twenty veterans and laid a wreath at their headstones. As far as you could see there were volunteers laying wreaths, and pretty soon dots of red were everywhere. It was pretty surreal, and a few times I kind of forgot where I was, and the importance of it all.
After laying wreaths and lunch, we were treated to the Caisson Platoon stables at Fort Myers. These are the horses which pull the caissons in the funerals at Arlington. Just the day before, these horses and the soldiers who work with them laid to rest a Vietnam Veteran whose remains were recently identified. The tack room was immaculate! Now that was a neat place to visit. (again, see the photos section for many pictures of the horses and the soldier who was on duty).
Our day ended by visiting some Smithsonian museums, and we left D.C. about 5:00 (correct, we did not spend the night in a hotel). Interstate 50 is a roller coaster ride when it is dry. Well, a treacherous ice and snowstorm followed us a few hours. I have never been so fearful in a vehicle! I do not know how that driver kept us on the road, as the fog and snow falling was so thick it looked like a white outer space that we were flying in. I pulled into my driveway about 4:00.
It was a tiring but very worthwhile experience. You can check out program and volunteer opportunities for next year by visiting http://wreathsacrossamerica.org.