Last week a friend asked if I wanted to join her in volunteering for Wreaths Across America by laying wreaths on the graves in Arlington National Cemetery on December 10. I’d never heard of Wreaths Across America, but it sounded like a great cause and a nice way to spend a Saturday morning during the holiday season, so I decided to volunteer.
I didn’t quite know what to expect since the volunteering website doesn’t offer much information, but I liked that they made a point to say, “When you place the wreath please remember you may be the first person to visit this grave in years so take time to read the stone and honor the memory of that hero.”
It was a beautiful day for volunteering, and the turnout was amazing. There were people all over the cemetery, and there were a number of military groups and veterans groups there, as well. Many people had traveled to DC to volunteer.
Overall it was a great experience, although it wasn’t quite what I pictured. Since the event began at 8:30am and the closing ceremony was at noon, I was expecting to be laying wreaths throughout the morning (after all, it’s a huge cemetery), but that wasn’t quite the case. I had no idea there would be so many people there, so actually it ended up being pretty tough to find wreaths to lay at all.
The first truck we found had a crowd of people around it and ran out of wreaths before we reached the front of the crowd.
After that, we passed several empty trucks before we finally found one that still had wreaths, and even that one ran out as we were picking up our wreaths. I heard there were about eighty trucks stationed throughout the cemetery, so I think we were probably a few steps behind the majority of the volunteers the entire time. If we had started in a more remote area of the cemetery we probably would have had better luck.
I decided to lay my wreath on the grave of Clarence Horatio Medairy, a captain in the US Marine Corps, whose headstone was beginning to be pushed over by a tree.
I also learned something new while volunteering. A few of the other volunteers were talking about how they’d found Audie Murphy’s grave the last time they visited, but that it had been difficult to find someone who knew who they were talking about when they were looking for it. I felt bad to add one more person to the list of those who didn’t know who he was, but I asked anyway. Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in World War II. And he was from Texas!
If you’re still interested in volunteering for Wreaths Across America this year, they’ll need volunteers to help remove wreaths in January, so check out their website if you’re interested in doing that.
If you have a chance to visit Arlington National Cemetery before they remove the wreaths, it’s beautiful and inspiring to see all of the graves with wreaths on them.
For anyone interested in volunteering to lay wreaths in a future year, here are my tips based on our experience:
- Don’t try to drive to the cemetery, as you won’t find parking even if you’re OK with paying the cemetery parking fees. You’ll end up parking at a nearby metro station and taking the metro anyway, so just plan to metro to begin with.
- Plan for metro delays. WMATA saves metro maintenance for the weekends to avoid delaying people on work days, and as a result some part of the metro is likely to be closed or single-tracking for maintenance work, which could cause delays if the maintenance work is on your line. And considering that on any given weekend there’s some major event going on somewhere in DC, no event seems to merit a maintenance-free weekend, as far as I can tell.
- After the opening ceremony (if you go to it, that is; we didn’t make it there in time), rather than waiting for wreaths in the crowds nearby, go directly to the most remote area of the cemetery possible and find a truck with wreaths there.
- If you have particular graves that you plan to lay wreaths on, make sure you pick up enough wreaths for those graves when you first have an opportunity, as all of the trucks we were able to find were out of wreaths by mid-morning.
- If you’re carrying a few wreaths and someone asks you where you found a truck that still has wreaths, consider giving them one of yours if you think there’s any chance the truck might have run out at that point (which it probably has). You might just make someone’s day. Especially if they’re looking for a wreath for the grave of someone they know in the cemetery.
- Check the main website for a schedule of events at the Arlington National Cemetery ahead of time if you’re interested in seeing wreath-laying ceremonies at President Kennedy’s grave or the USS Maine’s mast. From what I could see, the closing ceremony (wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers) was pretty much the same as the usual changing of the guards.