A hillside at Arlington National Cemetery during Wreaths Across America. Image courtesy of author.
Last Saturday, I took the Metro train from my home to Arlington National Cemetery to participate in Wreaths Across America, an annual way to honor our military. On this day, volunteers across the U.S. visit military cemeteries and lay thousands of pine wreaths with cheerful red bows on the graves of servicemembers who have passed away, whether in combat or at home. This year, we had 1,347 volunteers from the University spread out at 195 locations nationwide, according to our University Events team.
Wreaths Across America is always a moving event, and I’m constantly fascinated by the variety of people who show up. Some of those who come to Arlington National Cemetery are locals, while others travel in from other states and stick around the area to tour the sights of Washington, DC. Others are part of a community organization, such as the Boy Scouts or local sports. While some are individuals like me, there are also married couples and families with young children or teenagers.
This year, I was not stationed with a particular truck. I entered through the Memorial Avenue entrance, and I helped out at three different trucks by getting in line and laying down wreaths wherever they were needed. I also had a particular mission this year: to visit specific graves and pay my personal respects to some friends and relatives laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
Family Friend and Feisty Cat Lover
In one section of Arlington, a family friend known as “Aunt DD” lies buried with her Army husband. A metro DC resident, Aunt DD was a marvelous storyteller and loved her three cats – all she had to do was holler “Kittum, catum!” and all of them would zoom to her back door for their dinners.
Aunt DD was elderly when I knew her and was NOT shy about speaking her mind. The word “feisty” was invented for this woman. Even though she passed away well over a decade ago, the memory of her still brings a smile to my face.
Solving a Mystery in the Columbarium
Arlington is also equipped with a multi-section columbarium, and that was my next stop. The columbarium houses servicemembers and their spouses who have chosen to be cremated. Each columbarium section has small compartments for people’s ashes and flat panels engraved with someone’s name, rank, service branch, and other information.
I’d always wondered how those interred in the columbarium were honored on Wreaths Across America, because there’s no way to hang a wreath on those panels. An uncle of mine was in the U.S. Army and worked for the State Department, so he is interred there along with my aunt.
After paying tribute to Aunt DD, I made the long hike over to see my aunt and uncle and to discover what happens to the columbarium sites. I found out that wreaths are laid at the foot of each columbarium wall so that all those laid to rest within that wall are honored.
Heading Home after Wreaths Across America
After my visits to both graves, it was time to head home. On the way out, I encountered someone from my church who was also there to pay tribute to his relatives, and it was good to have someone to chat with during the long walk out. We reminisced about previous Wreaths Across America events, including one year when it was sleeting and the grass grew crunchy under our feet.
Looking around Arlington National Cemetery, it is easy to see the immense human cost of war. Arlington National Cemetery houses many people – everyday individuals, unknown heroes, and famous people such as Robert Todd Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Our active-duty servicemembers and vets give up a lot in service to their country. Servicemembers sacrifice life’s precious moments with their families and friends, move their households from place to place, adapt to wherever they’re sent, and face mortal danger. Spending a few hours on a chilly December morning to honor the military at Arlington National Cemetery is at least one meaningful way I can say “Thank you” from the rest of us.