By MCCS (SW/AW) Dean Lohmeyer
U.S. Navy Office of Information
Editor’s note: Wreaths Across America is a non-profit organization that organizes the laying of wreaths for tombstone in national cemeteries nationwide. Every year, Sailors and other volunteers give their time to help pay homage to our fallen service members by placing a wreath at their tombstones and remembering their service.
I was honored to participate in the Wreaths Across America event held at Arlington National Cemetery, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. It just so happened that this year marks the 150th anniversary of Arlington as a national cemetery, which made the event that much more special for those of us who helped place approximately 230,000 wreaths on tombstones throughout Arlington.
When a friend asked how I felt about participating, I found it hard to explain because so many thoughts immediately ran through my head. When I was later asked to write this blog, I realized I now had an avenue to share all those thoughts.
The first thought was that volunteering at Arlington National Cemetery was a privilege that I don’t want to take lightly. So many of my fellow U.S. service members never get a chance to serve in the Washington, D.C., area, and therefore may never get a chance to visit Arlington. Now that I live less than 10 miles from Arlington, and have visited the cemetery enough to feel as though I could give guided tours, I still feel privileged every time I visit because of one fact – I’m lucky to be close enough to pay respects to those who have gone before me.
I also felt a sense of duty. So many of my fellow Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen paid the ultimate price protecting the values that make America special, and many of them are buried here at Arlington. I stop on occasion and look at a gravestone, read the engraved information, and imagine the life led by the person honored by this humble yet iconic piece of limestone. Whether they were killed in action or lived a long and healthy life, they performed their duty…they served their country and are now interred in this most hallowed ground. I think it is now my duty to pay my respects to them however I can whenever I visit Arlington.
In the end, however, while there are many other emotions that I felt while participating in Wreaths Across America, I think the greatest was pride.
Perhaps the greatest moment of pride was what I saw in a member of our future generation of volunteers and leaders…the pride I felt watching someone else’s child serve. A young boy, probably no older than 8, was near me laying wreaths, doing his best to march with military precision while carrying four wreaths, two on each arm. He was so small that his small hands barely made it through the two wreaths, but he would accept no help from his mother who walked slowly behind him as they moved to a gravestone that was yet to receive a wreath. As he stopped in front of the tombstone, a puff of steam came from his mouth he exhaled on this cold December morning. He took a few moments to look at the gravestone, and then recited what he saw there. He told his mother the name, rank, service and unit of the service member. He then recited the medals the service member was awarded and told his mother the service member’s date of birth and the date he died. “He died four days before my birthday, Mom.” I was impressed by this young man, I was proud of what he was doing. But then I realized something bigger, something more important – this young boy was trying to find his own way to connect with the service member. By reading that tombstone was trying to learn about this person, and honor their service.
I continued to watch this child as he then laid the wreath at the tombstone, making sure the wreath was placed so the red bow was at the top, and then straightening the ribbons dangling from the bow. At each gravesite, with the other wreaths he and his mother carried, he honored the other service members the same way.
Watching this young boy brought out something else in me…a sense of respect. This young man was obviously taught by his mother to show respect to those represented by each tombstone.
He then showed the proper amount of reverence and respect at each gravesite he visited. He truly embodied the Wreaths Across America motto of “Remember. Honor. Teach.”
He was by no means the only one showing respect during this event. Indeed, nearly everyone I saw took a few moments to read the tombstone, perhaps clear away a leaf or two, lay the wreath, and then in their own way make a connection to the service member. Some made the sign of the cross on their chest. Some said a quick prayer. I saw those in uniform offer a crisp salute. I saw more than one kiss their fingertips and then press their fingertips to the limestone.
But everything I saw that day was encapsulated in that young boy – a complete sense of respect. I couldn’t help but think that someday there might be a young man laying a wreath at my tombstone. Who knows, this same young man might be my age one day, serving in the Navy himself, laying a wreath at my tombstone.
Those of us who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces today are blessed to receive so much support and respect from Americans throughout the country. We receive tremendous signs of support from the communities where we live, the restaurants where we eat, and the businesses where we shop. But it becomes a more visible sign of support and respect when so many volunteers come together to lay wreaths at our national cemeteries.
Thanks to the organizers at Wreaths Across America, we now have a much more visible sign of America’s respect for her veterans, both those interred in our national cemeteries and veterans serving today such as myself. That is truly humbling.
I encourage everyone to visit a national cemetery in their area now through January 24, 2015, before the wreaths are removed. The scene with wreaths on so many of the tombstones is truly breathtaking. I also encourage you to get involved with a wreath-laying in your area next year.
Then you can share all the feelings you experienced yourself.