Last December, I had the good fortune to participate in a program run by the Wreaths Across America organization. It raises money throughout the year and recruits thousands of volunteers for its annual ceremony. In 2022, it placed more than 2.7 million wreaths on the graves of those who served in our armed forces across 3,700 cemeteries. The ceremonies extended across the United States, foreign nations, and oceans and seas across the globe.
“May we never forget our fallen comrades. Freedom isn’t free.”
― Sergeant Major Bill Paxton
As I contemplated the scope of the organization’s mission, I thought “Wreaths Across Time” might be a better name for the group, as they seek to honor our veterans from every era of our nation’s history.
Crowds Defying The Cold
I arrived at the Saxonburg Cemetery, about thirty minutes from Pittsburgh, a half hour before the start of the ceremony. It was a cold, windy, overcast day with temperatures dipping below 20F (-7C). Given the weather conditions, I wondered how many volunteers would attend. Within a few minutes, however, I saw dozens of people arriving. Families, with young and old alike, greeted neighbors and friends, and rubbed their hands to keep warm.
I introduced myself to Melissa Somerville, the master of ceremonies, and a few other members of the organization. They welcomed me and explained the logistics of the ceremony. By the time Ms. Somerville began speaking, there were more than two-hundred volunteers.
“This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”
― Elmer Davis
A Message For The Present And Future
Ms. Somerville gave a moving speech, reminding the crowd of the importance of patriotism, sacrifice, honoring those who served our nation, and the necessity of passing along our values to future generations. She reminded us of how fragile our freedoms are and the constant vigilance required to maintain them. Her words made a strong impression on me.
As I scanned the faces in the crowd, I could tell her message touched others as well.
In the eleven months since this service, I’ve thought a lot about Ms. Sommerville. Recent polls and world events have made her warnings all the more prescient:
- A significant decline in the feeling of patriotism and good will for our nation
- Younger generations believing that socialism is superior to free market capitalism, with some even holding a positive view of communism
- An alarming drop in the percentage of young people indicating they would consider military service
- The war in the Ukraine approaching its second anniversary without a resolution in sight
- Increased ties between and belligerence on the part of China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia
- The recent terrorist attacks in Israel and potential for the conflict to spread across the middle east, perhaps resulting in an escalation involving the superpowers
A Matter Of Honor
“Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. And those in world history who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”
― Governor Ronald Reagan, January 5, 1967
A pastor gave a prayer of appreciation for those who served our nation and those who honor them.
This young lady gave a powerful rendition of our national anthem.
An honor guard offered twenty-one gun salute.
“Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong”
― James Bryce
The Placing of the Wreaths
Designated members of the volunteers placed wreaths in sections of the cemetery dedicated to each branch of our armed services.
After this portion of the ceremony, the volunteers were invited to pick as many wreaths as they felt comfortable carrying and place them on the veterans’ graves.
Despite the weather, everyone was in good spirits and enthusiastic. Most likely did not know the particular veterans whose graves they honored. But I did notice some somber moments in which it was apparent the deceased was a close friend or relative of those standing at the grave.
I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of parents who brought their small children and teenagers. In an age of the internet, smartphones, tablets, and 85 inch televisions, having children spend the morning in a cemetery on a brutally cold day is probably not high on many parents’ list.
As I watched the children put wreaths on the graves, I imagined they might bring their own children to such a service someday, perhaps at this same cemetery.
Observations Of The Past And Present
I had the opportunity to place eight wreaths on graves. I was surprised at how quickly the crowds distributed the wreaths. Many people lingered after the service, likely reminiscing about the lives of their ancestors and exchanging stories.
As I said silent prayers over the graves of these service men and women, I could not help but contemplate what their lives were like and what they had seen. Some were children or teenagers during the Civil War and lived long enough to see the beginning of WWI.
Others were alive to hear the promise that WWI would be “the war to end all wars” only to see the dawn of WWII, barely twenty years later. One can only imagine what they must have thought about the nature of a man and the tenuousness of life itself.
“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.”
— Abraham Lincoln
The Scope of Wreaths Across America
The dedication of Wreaths Across America in preserving the memory of our nation’s service men and women — regardless of time or physical boundaries — is remarkable. The organization also features a broad curriculum for students of every grade that anyone can download from its website.
It has a podcast available at Spotify, and a radio station available from a link on its website or through such websites and smartphone applications such as Radio Garden. The radio program features tales of service, patriotism, and stories told by veterans.
What Can You Do?
You can help in any or all of the following ways:
- Donate to help fund the costs of the wreaths
- Find a local cemetery that participates in the Wreaths Across America ceremonies and volunteer to distribute wreaths
- Work with your local schools to have the Wreaths Across America curriculum taught in your schools, churches, and other organizations
- Spread the word of the organization’s good efforts to friends and family members
“If not us, who? If not now, when?”
― President John F. Kennedy
Why Does This Matter?
What is the connection between families placing wreaths on the grave of veterans who may have passed away as long ago as nearly two-hundred and fifty years ago? Plenty.
- We teach current and future generations to honor and appreciate those that sacrificed so much for the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy today, and all-too-often take for granted.
- We strengthen and reinforce our cultural values of dedication, service, honor, and freedom. People who understand and can articulate their cultural values are far better-equipped to combat the endless stream of propaganda from those seeking to turn us against ourselves.
- Those who understand our history and culture are also more likely to do what it takes to maintain and preserve our freedom.
“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people”
― Mahatma Gandhi
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