BIDDEFORD — On April 6, 2006, U.S. Army Spc. Dustin J. Harris of Patten was killed in action in Bayji, Iraq. His death left a hole in the hearts of his family members.

Harris’ grandfather, James Troutt, still tears up thinking about the loss of his grandson.

Troutt and other family members of fallen soldiers want to make sure the American public doesn’t forgot those who have made the ultimate sacrifice: losing their life in service to their country.

In honor of his grandson, Troutt, and others with similar losses, take part in the Wreaths Across America convoy.

“We can’t forget the troops,” said Troutt.

On Monday, the convoy of wreaths, which begins in Harrington, stopped at Biddeford High School. It was the first time the organization stopped at the school.

That morning, hundreds of students from Biddeford Intermediate School, Biddeford High School and Dayton Consolidated School lined up in front of the high school on Maplewood Avenue. They cheered and waved their miniature American flags as the convoy drove up the street. In the convoy, were a dozen or so large, tractor-trailer trucks full of wreaths.

The stop at the school was one of many that will be made on the trip to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where tens of thousands of the remembrance wreaths will be laid on the tombs of fallen soldiers.

A ceremony was held at BHS with the students in attendance.

“To come here and see these young kids makes me so happy; we’re teaching the younger generations that freedom is not free,” said Troutt before the start of the ceremony.

Wreaths Across America dates back to 1992, when Maine businessman Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Co., donated 5,000 wreaths that were laid on graves of veterans at the Virginia cemetery.

The procession of wreaths over several days has become an annual event that has expanded each year.

In 2012, the one-millionth wreath was placed at the cemetery.

In addition to placing wreaths in the national cemetery, the nonprofit organization distributes them across the nation. This is made possible through donations from individuals, corporate donors and volunteer truck drivers and companies, according to the organization.

Wreaths are placed at more than 900 locations, in all 50 states and overseas.

Last year, more than 540,000 remembrance wreaths, including 143,000 in Arlington, were placed.

On the way to Arlington, the convoy stops at schools ”“ like Biddeford High School ”“ monuments, veterans’ homes and communities to promote its mission to “Remember, Honor, Teach.”

During the ceremony in Biddeford, Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Ray said he has known the Worcester family, which started Wreaths Across America, for many years. When the offer for the procession to stop at the school was made, he said he “jumped at the chance.”

Among the participants in the ceremony at the school was Maine’s first lady Ann LePage. LePage is well-known for her support of military families.

“It is a complete” honor to be part of the convoy, she said. She’ll be riding a motorcycle for much of the trip south.

LePage directed her comments to the high school students, and said they were at an important time in their lives, when they have to make decisions about their future.

If they decide to join the military, she said, “You are writing a blank check up to and including your life.”

The trip to the Arlington cemetery, said LePage, was “to honor those brave men and women whose check was cashed way too early.”

Those who choose to serve in the military are making “a noble and proud” choice, said Pam Payeur, who founded Wounded Heroes, which helps returning veterans, and is the mother of three Biddeford High School students, including a veteran who was severely injured while on tour in the Middle East.

She told the students that they should help returning veterans feel welcomed and valued.

The wreaths are symbolic, said Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant. They are a reminder for people to thank veterans who have fought for “the freedoms we take for granted,” and to always remember those who lost their lives fighting in service of this country.

With its many stops, the convoy takes about a week to travel from Maine to Virginia. Around the country, wreath-placing ceremonies will be held on Wreaths Across America Day on Saturday, including one at Southern Maine Veterans Cemetery, off Stanley Road in Springvale, at noon.

— Staff Writer Dina Mendros can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 324 or [email protected]

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