By Susan Hoffman
Edge Managing Editor
In life, there are certain rituals we expect to have. Some of those rituals involve education – completing elementary school, finishing middle school, graduating high school and seeking a college degree.
Other rituals involve careers — getting our first job, progressing through other jobs and retirement. Still other life rituals might be buying a first house, marrying, getting together with family or friends at certain times of the year, and finally, being laid to rest as family and friends wish us the best in our next life.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting pandemonium, however, threw a gigantic monkey wrench into our professional and personal lives. We lost friends and family members, had to seek new jobs, grew more cautious about venturing outside without masks, and stayed a careful six feet away from each other.
After a while, we grew used to the “new normal” and adapted to it. We’ve had to change how our children are educated, and instructors not familiar with online instruction have had to grow their technology skills and alter how they teach their students. Working remote, going to virtual church services, abstaining from going out unless necessary and staying at home as much as possible to avoid the risk of infection is now normal. Graduations, baptisms, weddings, funerals – all have been either postponed or modified for health reasons.
But there are some things that COVID-19 hasn’t completely stolen from us. We found ways to more safely celebrate the holidays, even though we had to alter how we celebrated. We learned more about what matters to us: our relationships with our families and friends, our career goals, and our personal goals.
We also reached out to each other, providing what help and solace we could. Through technology such as FaceTime and Zoom, we’re still able to communicate and maintain connections.
Wreaths Across America: An Annual Ritual
Wreaths Across America is one of those life’s annual rituals that I like to participate in, especially at Arlington National Cemetery. It’s challenging at times – the weather is often cold and windy, and it helps to bundle up as much as possible.
For truck volunteers, it involves getting up well before dawn to make the trip over to Fort Myer. If I go by Metro, going to Wreaths Across America involves a long trip of two trains and a walk of almost one mile.
So why do I participate in Wreaths Across America? What makes people like me get up and go out into the freezing December cold to lay wreaths on graves, the vast majority of those graves holding strangers from different eras?
Two words: one is honor and the other is respect.
I did not grow up in a military family. But some of my immediate family members as well as various relatives served in different branches: Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines.
I grew up between the Marines’ Quantico and the Army’s Ft. Belvoir, so I’ve been around military families most of my life and have some sense of what military life was like for them. That knowledge has only deepened once I began to work for an organization founded to help military servicemembers and their families get an education.
By going out to participate in Wreaths Across America each year and placing wreaths on graves at Arlington, I can honor the people in those graves for all they went through in serving their country. Wreaths Across America is also a way for current servicemembers to show respect for their family and friends buried there, and for older family members to teach younger generations about the history of their families.
Over the last 8 years, I have volunteered to be part of the truck crew at Arlington. Despite the cold early mornings, I keep returning because this event provides a sense of pause during a very busy time of the year. It’s heartwarming to know for a few hours one early December morning, our fallen veterans across the country are being remembered. It is the collective effort of thousands that make this day remarkable. I have volunteered in the rain, sleet, snow, and even some years, sunshine. While we won’t be at Arlington this year due to the pandemic, I still plan to participate virtually and donate to this amazing organization. – Robyn Rother, Senior Manager, Civilian Outreach
Honoring the people in Arlington – and at military cemeteries across the country — by laying green wreaths with cherry-red bows is a small way to show my appreciation. I may not be able to change the entire world on my own, but I can at least show respect for the people who tried to make it better.
Ronald Reagan once said, “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.” For the people visiting those graves and remembering the relatives or friends they lost, I like to think that seeing that wreath brings a little bit of comfort to the grieving by silently reminding them that someone else continues to care about their loss.
And ultimately, showing honor and respect to both the living and the dead is why I and everybody else — American Military University staff, alumni, current students and many others — participate in this ritual every year.