Volunteer lay wreaths on graves at Arlington

Donna Collier of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., places wreaths on graves in Section 60 at Arlington Cemetery. War dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried in that area.
Donna Collier of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., places wreaths on graves in Section 60 at Arlington Cemetery. War dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried in that area. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pfc. De'Angello Robinson, 19, traveled seven hours by bus to place a wreath on the tombstone of a soldier he didn't know.

For Robinson and other Marines who came from Camp Johnson, N.C., to Arlington National Cemetery to decorate graves, the day was about paying tribute to the men and women who served.

"In a few months, from where we are getting shipped out, this could be us," said Robinson. "If it is us, I would want somebody to do the same for me, so I'm just trying to show respect."

He was one of more than 6,000 volunteers who gathered Saturday morning to place wreaths on the graves at Arlington.

In 1992, Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath in Harrington, Maine, began the tradition when he and several others decided to decorate several hundred graves at Arlington. Morrill and his wife, Karen, make the trip every year, stopping in different cities along the way to host events dedicated to service members and victims of terrorism. The Worcesters also founded the nonprofit organization Wreaths Across America, which has spread the wreath-laying to other states.

This year, volunteers placed more than 16,000 wreaths on graves at Arlington, in areas at the Pentagon, on graves at Fayetteville National Cemetery in Arkansas, at Battery Park in New York City and at the memorial site for United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa. For the second year, the Wal-Mart Foundation donated more than $150,000 to pay for and transport the wreaths.

Charleen Hunt, 70, of Westminster said she made the trip to Arlington to honor her late husband, who was career military. Although her husband is not buried at Arlington, Hunt said the wreath-laying is her way of thanking those who sacrificed. "It's a small way civilians can support our troops," she said. "It's like visiting a family grave site."

Dressed for the cold day, volunteers walked across the cemetery's expansive lawns and hills. They focused on some of the older graves because they are not visited as often as the newer ones, organizers said.

The mood was upbeat as children played and couples held hands while carrying the fresh pine to the graves. Each wreath was deep green, with a small red bow fastened across the top.

In Section 60, where veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, the mood was somber. The United Service Organizations donated 1,000 wreaths to decorate the section, which drew people who wept, prayed and tried to console each other.

Some read aloud names carved into the stones while others examined the place cards at graves waiting for permanent markers.

Sandra Lockwood was one of many mothers wiping away tears. She drove eight hours from Zanesfield, Ohio, to visit the grave of her son, Marine Gunnery Sgt. David Shane Spicer, who died in combat in July.

"Nobody should ever forget why we're free. . . . My son paid for that," she said. "When I'm long gone, I want someone to remember him."

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