From Senator Angus King

Wreaths Across America: An inspirational day at Arlington National Cemetery

Posted:  Monday, December 21, 2015 - 7:30pm

For the last 24 years, Wreaths Across America has honored our nation’s heroes by laying Maine-made balsam fir wreaths on the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. This meaningful tradition sends a resounding message to our veterans and their families that we are so thankful for their service and sacrifice, and also gives us reason to be proud that this is a Maine-led project. This year, for the first time, I had the chance to attend the wreath laying in Arlington and I am still thinking about that very moving experience.

As one of about 70,000 Americans who made their way to Arlington on Saturday, Dec. 12, I couldn’t help but be swept up in the energy and excitement. When I arrived, lines of visitors were already wrapped around the roads of the cemetery, patiently waiting for the six tractor trailers – which had driven all the way from Harrington, Maine – to open their doors and distribute more than 200,000 wreaths. And while it was nearly 70 degrees in Washington, the inviting smell of balsam fir and friendly Maine faces made it feel like home and a true holiday season.   

My first stop of the day was at the grave of former Maine Senator Bill Hathaway – who was also my boss some 40 years ago when I worked in the Senate as a staffer. Senator Hathaway, known to most of us as a statesman, a mentor, or a friend, was also a decorated World War II veteran who spent time as a Prisoner of War after his plane was shot down over Romania. As I joined with his son, Fred, to place a wreath on his headstone, I couldn’t help but notice the order of how Senator Hathaway’s many accolades were listed on his grave. It read, “William D. Hathaway, Captain US Army, World War II, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Air Medal, Prisoner of War, U.S. Senator.” You’ll notice that “U.S. Senator” is at the bottom of this list, which really puts things in perspective and highlights how he valued service and sacrifice over titles or self-promotion. He proudly served his country first and foremost as an Army Captain, and did so with the relentless dedication and quiet modesty that was so common in the greatest generation.  He was an inspiring man, and this grateful staffer couldn’t have had a better role model.

Amazingly, nearly all the graves in the cemetery were adorned with their own Maine-made wreath within about an hour. Those of us in attendance from the Pine Tree State, including Governor Paul LePage, First Lady Ann LePage, and Wreaths Across America founder Morrill Worcester, gathered at the USS Maine Mast Memorial for a wreath laying ceremony to remember the fallen. The USS Maine Mast memorial stands among the graves in Arlington in remembrance of the hundreds of Sailors and Marines who went down with the ship in Havana, Cuba in 1898, following an explosion. It is a towering reminder of what we owe to those who fight for America, and it was certainly a fitting place to come together during this tribute that has been Maine-led from the start.

What began in 1992 as a small gesture of compassion from Morrill and Karen Worcester of Worcester Wreaths in Harrington has blossomed into a nationwide tradition. From the truckers and the Patriot Guard Riders who escort the tractor trailers on their motorcycles down the East Coast, to the countless volunteers in Maine and around the country who help transport and lay the wreaths, this is truly a group effort.

I consider myself lucky to have been in Arlington this year for the culmination of that effort, and it was a truly humbling and powerful experience to witness the generosity firsthand. The mission of Wreaths Across America is “Remember, Honor, Teach,” and during this holiday season of giving, we have an opportunity to remember, honor, and teach others about the service and sacrifice of those who so bravely fought to preserve our freedom.