Volunteer Pati Redmond of Frederick, Md., helps to lay more than 100,000 holiday wreaths over the white tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery during Wreaths Across America Day.
Associated Press Enlarge
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Thousands of people filtered quietly among the rows of white tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday, placing pine wreaths with simple red bows at the graves of sons, cousins, parents, battlefield buddies, fraternity brothers, and strangers fallen in wars over the last 70 years.
There were Boy Scout troops, military units in dress uniforms, and extended families in mittens and earmuffs. Many headed for familiar spots and formed somber clusters around a single tomb.
Some said prayers or read out combat citations and saluted.
Others wept or simply stood and stared, lost in thought.
"Every stone here has a story," said Tim Frey, 43, a police officer from Lancaster, Pa., who came to honor Lt. Col. Mark Phelan, a member of his Army Reserve unit, who was killed by an explosive device in Iraq in 2004.
"I'm here from a sense of duty and to see a friend again," he said. "Other people may not know anyone, but it's still an honor to come here."
More than 100,000 wreaths, loaded onto about 20 tractor-trailers, arrived after a six-day caravan from Maine for the 20th annual Wreaths Across America event, sponsored by a nonprofit group.
The trucks parked at scattered spots around the vast cemetery and hundreds of volunteers handed them to waiting visitors.
The event included formal wreath-layings at the grave of President John F. Kennedy, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the original mast of the USS Maine, a legendary battleship sunk in 1898.
The official slogan of the organizers was "Remember, Honor, and Teach," and the wreath-bearing convoy stopped for special events in towns on the way.
But for most visitors to the cemetery, it was a day of personal mourning and private reflection.
"Christmas doesn't seem to mean what it used to mean, and we need to remember that these soldiers died so we can have the things we have," said Jeannie Ludwig, 39, of Fairfax, Va., who was at the graves of her grandparents, both veterans of World War II, and the grave of a friend who died in Iraq. "My kids are still too young to understand what these soldiers did for us, but this is a way to begin talking to them about it."
By far the most crowded portion of the cemetery was Section 60, where the most recent casualties of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.
Some mourners preferred to keep their grief private. A group of Special Forces officers, standing next to a friend's tomb, politely declined to speak to a reporter. At another grave, a middle-aged man recited the obituary of a soldier decorated for valor in combat but said he would rather not talk about him.
But for many others, Wreaths Across America was a way to connect veterans and their families across wars and generations, or a form of group therapy. Vietnam veterans in motorcycle jackets handed out bright red Christmas caps to Boy Scout packs and shook hands with spit-and-polish Marine officers.