ARLINGTON, Va. – On any day, the rolling hills of Arlington National Cemetery are a place of solemn reflection on the contributions and sacrifices made by the men and women who rest there.
But the mood seemed especially poignant on Saturday as thousands of volunteers from across the country — including large groups from Maine — converged on these hallowed grounds for the annual Wreaths Across America ceremony.
The wreaths honored those who served, but the ceremony also became part of the national mourning for more than two dozen children and adults killed just a day earlier at a Connecticut elementary school.
Invoking the final words of Capt. Josh Byers — an Army company commander killed in Iraq in 2003 — event co-organizer Karen Worcester of Maine urged the solemn crowd to “keep moving forward.”
“Especially in lieu of what happened in Connecticut yesterday, we need to take some advice from Josh and ‘keep moving forward’ with what they’ve taught us,” Worcester said.
“And we need to teach our kids about the character of an American, which is to take care of each other.”
Wreaths Across America began in 1992 as an effort by Morrill Worcester — owner of Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Maine — to honor about 5,000 veterans lying in an older section of Arlington National Cemetery that saw few visitors. Twenty years later it is a nationwide effort, spearheaded by Mainers.
On Saturday, volunteers placed an estimated 110,000 wreaths on graves and memorials at the Arlington cemetery in a span of less than two hours.
Hundreds of thousands more wreaths were laid at graves in 800 cemeteries across the country as part of congressionally designated “Wreaths Across America Day.”
The day began when a convoy of tractor trailers, Patriot Guard Riders, Gold Star Mothers and Maine State Police troopers arrived at the cemetery. The convoy began heading south from Maine almost a week earlier, making stops in towns along the route.
The experience was so moving that Maine State Police Detective Elmer Ferren was already making plans to escort the convoy again next year.
“By the end of the week you are a family,” said Ferren, who has served two tours in Iraq.
The memorial service started with a moment of silence for the children killed by a gunman in Newtown, Conn., on Friday. Volunteers then lined up to receive wreaths to place in a specific section of the cemetery, the final resting spot of more than 400,000.
The crowd included Boy Scout troops and biker clubs, uniformed members of all five branches of the armed services, families with toddlers too small to carry a wreath alone and World War II veterans who leaned on canes for assistance.
There were also parents who came to personally decorate the graves of sons and daughters lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mainers were well represented on Saturday, both during the official ceremonies and among the estimated 15,000 volunteers.
Officer Chris Coyne and Lt. Janine Roberts of the Portland Police Department as well as Sgt. Steven Thibodeau of the Scarborough Police Department laid wreaths at the tomb of President Kennedy.
Gov. Paul LePage placed a wreath at the base of the memorial to the crew members lost in the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba, in 1898. And many more Mainers — including a group of about 30 representing Cheverus High School in Portland — fanned out throughout the cemetery.
Among them were Kaitlyn Dostie and Libby O’Brien, two Cheverus sophomores who came down with other members of the school’s swimming and dive team. Dostie, of Raymond, said it felt good helping honor veterans whose graves may not have been visited in years.
“It’s a memorable experience,” added O’Brien, of Cape Elizabeth.
Members of the Cheverus swimming and dive team began making the trip to D.C. several years ago along with their coach, Kevin Haley, a member of the Portland Police Department whose brother is buried at Arlington.
Walking along a pathway while headed to the USS Maine memorial, Haley motioned to the surrounding hills covered in white headstones and said his goal is to teach younger generations that “all of this history is for our freedom.”
Saturday’s gathering was also an opportunity for collective grieving for the young victims in Connecticut and a chance, Karen Worcester said, to follow the example of service set by those resting at Arlington.
“By taking care of each other, we can take care of our country and share the lesson that our heroes have taught us,” she said.
Note: This article was corrected on Sunday to state that members of the Patriot Guard Riders participated in the convoy from Maine to Arlington. The Patriot Guard Riders and the Patriot Riders are separate organizations.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: