The people have spoken.
Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy has directed Arlington National Cemetery to reverse course and allow the annual wreath laying at veterans' graves by Wreaths Across America and its many volunteers.
Cemetery officials announced Monday that the Dec. 19 annual wreath laying would be canceled because of COVID sparking an “outpouring” of concern to cemetery officials, as well as to Wreaths Across America, said Karen Worcester, executive director of the organization. Through public donations and volunteers, the nonprofit has placed more than 2 million veterans wreaths at more than 2,000 cemeteries nationwide over nearly three decades.
The most well-known of those locations is Arlington National Cemetery, where the tradition started in 1992, and Wreaths Across America has had a “collaborative, good relationship” with cemetery officials for 29 years, Worcester said, during a media call Tuesday.
In a Monday statement on their website, cemetery officials said they were canceling the event because they determined they couldn’t implement enough controls to mitigate the risks of hosting the large event because of current and forecasted COVID infection rates.
The Army’s statement said McCarthy “has directed Arlington National Cemetery to safely host Wreaths Across America.”
This year’s wreath-laying event will look very different from the past, where 30,000 to 40,000 volunteers gathered on Saturdays in December at Arlington to lay simple green wreaths with red bows on veterans' graves. There won’t be thousands and thousands of volunteers, Worcester said, and they’re working with cemetery officials on the logistics. “We don’t know what this will look like, but we do know we will meet the challenge,” she said.
As for the other 2,500 cemeteries across the country where Wreaths Across America volunteers also lay holiday wreaths, conversations are ongoing with those cemetery officials, and the organization has asked that volunteers adhere to local regulations, Worcester said. In some cases, the events may be limited to online. In some places, there will be “drive-through” events where people will be handed wreaths, she said.
After finding out about the cemetery’s cancellation, Worcester said, “it was a rocky night as we tried to pull ourselves together. It’s been a difficult year, and we didn’t want to have another disappointment.” Her team wasn’t expecting this, after having developed various options over the last seven months to use at any level of COVID mandate, she said. Her team “jumped into action,” she said, and today, had a discussion with the cemetery’s leadership team.
Worcester said they were contacted by people from all walks of life, asking what they could do to help. Some were angry, some were indignant, some were “very, very sad,” she said.
Worcester didn’t point fingers at anyone who made the initial decision to cancel the wreath laying event.
“There are no bad guys. Everybody is trying to take care of everyone,” she said. She said she felt there was a communications gap.
Through this adversity, Worcester said, she is hoping the attention will be an opportunity to share the organization’s mission throughout the year, which is to remember, honor and teach.
Worcester’s husband Morrill began the tradition in 1992, after founding the Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine. That year, the company had a surplus, and he saw it as a way to honor veterans with wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery. He was inspired by the cemetery when he visited there as a 12-year-old.
Worcester read a message from her son Michael, who wrote that remembering the fallen service men and women can’t become one of those “used to be activities” that fade away because of the pandemic.
“Do you think for one moment that any of the brave men and women would have thought twice before running into battle?” he wrote.
“Why would it even be an option to take a year off from remembering and honoring them?”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.