From Wreaths Across America's Executive Director, Karen Worcester
Like many holidays, the meaning of Memorial Day has become a bit vague. Just as Santa Claus and gift giving now define Christmas, Memorial Day is better known for family barbecues than for visiting cemeteries. Maybe this is because people would rather focus on happier subjects, especially as the warm weather beckons. That’s understandable. However, the military families we support have impressed upon me how important it is to remember what Memorial Day is really about: honoring those who have lost their lives while serving our country.
The holiday itself is quite old, by American standards. It actually dates to the post-Civil War era, when death had touched every community, north, and south. As a way to remember and honor soldiers on both sides who had died during the war, “Decoration Day” was established. On this day, people brought flowers and flags to their local cemeteries to decorate the gravestones of fallen soldiers.
Later, the name of the holiday was changed to Memorial Day and it was expanded to include Americans who died in any war, not just the Civil War. Unlike Veterans Day, which honors everyone, living or dead, who has served in the armed forces, Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, specifically to honor those who have fought and died in a war or conflict – those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
We believe that to truly honor our lost veterans, we must remember them as people – not as numbers or political fodder, and in a way more meaningful than sharing a post on Facebook. Real people gave their lives – for us – and this can be easy to forget. In fact, a poll in 2000 showed that only 28 percent of Americans knew what Memorial Day was for (other than being the unofficial start of summer). In response, Congress established the National Moment of Remembrance to be observed at 3 p.m. local time every Memorial Day as an act of national unity. Will you take one moment this Memorial Day to reflect on the sacrifices these brave men and women have made?
If you’d like to do more, nearly every community has a veterans’ cemetery nearby. Why not pay your respects in person? Some people bring flowers, or flags, or other mementos. But you don’t need to. One simple thing we do when we lay wreaths on graves on Wreaths Across America Day each December is to say the name of the veteran out loud. It’s been said that a person dies twice: once when they take their final breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken. By saying their name aloud, we keep their memory alive.
Many groups such as the American Gold Star Mothers, who have lost a child in service to their country, the American Legion, or Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) host Memorial Day events to honor fallen veterans. By attending these, you show your gratitude and support for our veterans. By meeting the families and friends of those who have died, you can start to understand the true nature of the sacrifices that have been made by both military and the ones who loved them.
Another way to spend the day meaningfully is to explore history. Remember, Memorial Day honors military from all wars, so learning about the past is a way to honor veterans of previous generations. You could visit a memorial, a museum or a battlefield to learn about the veterans from wars throughout our nation’s history. By the way, you don’t need to visit Washington, D.C., to find a war memorial. There’s likely one right in your community that perhaps you didn’t even know was there.
Finally, if you know of a family who has lost someone, please say a kind word and let them know that you remember their spouse, child, sibling, parent or friend. It can mean a great deal to them just to talk with someone who remembers their loved one’s life, as well as their death.
We seem to be at a time in history when Americans are having a hard time agreeing on anything. We’re divided in so many ways. But at the heart of it, most of us can agree on one thing: We are Americans. This Memorial Day, let’s honor those who have given their lives for the country we all love, and who have made it possible for us to live freely and peacefully together – no matter our faith, our politics or our backgrounds.
Yes. At Wreaths Across America, we've heard about the "Walmart Heart," and we're honored to be welcoming a group next month that has decided to combine their charity effort with their patriotism and respect.
Brandon says last year spending time at Arlington National Cemetery on National Wreaths Across America Day with fellow employees of Cowan Systems, Inc. was an educational and humbling experience.
"It's been a dream of mine to go back to Arlington with my Mom to be a part of National Wreaths Across America Day to place remembrance wreaths on my grandparents' graves."
According to Gretchen CFI went above and beyond two years ago when they helped make her dream come true.
"When we did that project we had one hundred and thirty-five of our employees at that time who had served in the military and that's a big percentage of employees for one company. We think that it's important to recognize their service."
Christa Parker's love for her son, country, and volunteerism with Wreaths Across America knows no boundaries, quite literally. Her volunteer efforts frequently have her crossing states lines and her stamina and organizational efforts are an inspiration to all.
When asked if he could describe the power of the veterans' remembrance wreath he admitted it was a challenge to put into words, yet hesitated only for a moment.
One highlight from this year's performance came when Six-String Soldiers invited children of all ages to the stage to sing along with them, the Rick Charrette song, I'm An American! It echoed through the valley where replica dog tags of fallen heroes hang among the balsam fir trees' tips that will be used to make veterans remembrance wreaths.
"Rain, snow, or sunshine as you know these guys walk the walk, so we're here to dedicate this section of the tip land to the Old Guard," proclaims Wayne Hanson, Chairman of the Board for Wreaths Across America. "We certainly appreciate everything they do for us."
It was, in fact, a competitor of Abilene Motor Express who reached out to them to tell them about Wreaths Across America and Will says once the owners, Keith and Kolen Jones heard about the effort they were one hundred percent behind it right away.
Especially meaningful is the location of the Grove, which is adjacent to the soon-to-be-opened Medal of Honor Remembrance Park. From this vantage point, The Old Guard will continue to stand watch over America’s fallen heroes.
Kevin says driving Armellini's load of wreaths in the escort to VA National Cemetery in Lake Worth along with the Walmart trucks is a meaningful experience for him emotionally because of honoring veterans, but he says there's also a more physical kind of excitement as a professional driver.
Starting at the end of this month, as we countdown to Wreath Day, we would like to invite you to appear on our national webcast/webinar series to tell us about the local veterans buried in your community. We will also run your interview on WAA Radio and share on social media and in the newsletter.
"If we don't teach this younger generation that freedom is not free they're going to forget and not understand the sacrifice made by these men and women who keep us free and safe. I don't know where this country would be if not for the brave people who step up and volunteer to serve in our military. It's really scary to think of where we'd be without a powerful military."
Thinking about Christmas during July provides us with the perfect opportunity to encourage others to get involved with our mission by sharing the stories of their hometown heroes while explaining, however, to those not familiar we're not "decorating graves."
We are humbled by the hundreds of thousands of people who get involved every year on National Wreaths Across America Day at Arlington National Cemetery and at over twelve hundred participating cemeteries in paying tribute to our veterans. One of those passionate and dedicated individuals is Ellen O'Neil Fuller.
Not only does Wade Gunter place a remembrance wreath on the headstone of a fallen service member at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), he says their name aloud when he props it against the stone. It's what Wade does next that takes the Wreaths Across America mission to remember, honor, and teach to a higher level.
"We're very fortunate to find carriers, veterans, and non-veterans that want to participate in the program. We get drivers every year who call us to get involved."
From the white wigs to the tailored red coats every aspect of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is designed with history and field music in mind. The unit was formed in 1960 and according to SFC Martin was originally made up of non-musician infantrymen, harkening back to the field musicians of the Continental Army.
"When it comes to Wreaths Across America, we don't do what we do for the applause of men; we do it because of how important it is to the Gold Star families we've connected with over the years."
"We knew at the time it was inevitable he'd be deployed," Scott explains. "He was just a few days shy of being promoted to Sergeant when his Humvee hit an IED (improvised explosive device) in Iraq."
"I remember being in the cemetery years ago and seeing one section, it was the World War I section, near Fort Myer that was all covered in wreaths, and I was wondering who the heck put them there," Jari explains. "I know what struck me about it. It was an old section that no family members would be coming to visit."
"They have to learn and understand the history to know of all the people who have given their lives to make this country what it is today. We're honored and proud to be part of Wreaths Across America and we look forward to being part of the future."
Like any military maneuver, music performance requires individual excellence in a synchronized effort that requires discipline to achieve the desired goal.
They know they have come to serve those who served us by placing a remembrance wreath on their headstone while saying their name. Like Al, every volunteer we speak with says they come away from the day knowing they have contributed to something so much bigger than themselves.
"The statue now serves as inspiration for young people to say yes, the military is something that we should support because they come to rescue life. They don't always come to conquer the land and certainly not American soldiers. We don't go anywhere to conquer lands we go to help liberate people."
"As the saying goes we all gave some, but some gave all, and that resonates with me all the time," explains Vince. "This is our way of giving back and paying tribute to the fallen because those people are the heroes."
"We seem to be at a time in history when Americans are having a hard time agreeing on anything. We’re divided in so many ways. But at the heart of it, most of us can agree on one thing: We are Americans."
"It was really hard because I couldn't hug her. As soon as she put her hand on the wreath, I started to cry, and I could tell she was starting to tear up."
In her keynote address, Karen Worcester thanked the UMA for the honor and shared a personal story of why Wreaths Across America does what it does. In a heartfelt and often tearful delivery, Karen told the story of Edith Knowles, a Gold Star Sister who lost her brother, Bud, during World War II.
I knew I had the contacts in the trucking industry," Barry explains of his initial involvement with the organization. "I just had to get people to believe in Wreaths Across America they way I did."