Tractor-trailers laden with Maine wreaths destined to grace the graves of veterans across the country left Harrington on Sunday and stopped in Bangor, where several hundred people turned out at Bangor Auditorium to pay tribute to the Wreaths Across America program and the Morrill Worcester family.
In Harrington, Kevin Woodward of Machiasport, commander of VFW Post 11553, secured the last boxes of wreaths that filled the last tractor-trailer set to travel to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Once the truck doors were closed, the volunteers headed out for the 17th time with the mission to “Remember the fallen, honor those who serve, and teach our children the value of freedom.”
“This is one of the greatest programs I’ve seen,” said Woodward, a Desert Storm veteran who planned to accompany the convoy as far as Bangor. “What better way to honor our fallen comrades?”
This year the program prepared 105,724 wreaths to be placed on the graves of veterans. According to Morrill Worcester, who started the program and owns Worcester Wreaths, about 10,000 wreaths are scheduled to be placed on the graves of veterans at Arlington National Cemetery during a ceremony Saturday. The rest will be delivered to 354 cemeteries and monuments across the country and 24 sites overseas, including four in Iraq.
Worcester Wreaths donated nearly 20,000 wreaths to the program. The rest were paid for by donors to the nonprofit organization Wreaths Across America, which oversees the program.
Worcester said it felt good to be headed out with the convoy Sunday morning to honor those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.
“If I had one hope, it was to be an inspiration to more people to get involved. That’s what I was trying to do,” he said. “It’s gratifying to see that there are so many people who think the same way I do.”
Worcester said 25 trucks donated by 15 companies were taking part in the program this year. Some had left before the Arlington convoy set out Sunday, so they could deliver wreaths as far away as California and Texas in time for the coordinated nationwide ceremonies Saturday. Other trucks will be loaded in the next few days to deliver wreaths to sites in New England, he said.
During a brief ceremony before the Sunday departure from Harrington, Worcester honored the companies involved, presenting plaques to the drivers present and a bronze statue to representatives from Wal-Mart, a major donor to the program.
During the ceremony, Kathryn Teresa Cross of the Gold Star Mothers Association clutched a wreath Worcester presented to her. Her son Tyler Connelly, a Navy SEAL who died in Iceland in 2002, is buried in Connecticut. Cross said she planned to place the wreath on his grave there before continuing to Arlington for the ceremony.
Cross said she would join a friend, Ruth Stonesifer, and place a wreath on the grave of Stonesifer’s son.
“As mothers, we will join hands at the grave, and our sons will be joined together by the wreaths,” she said. “Thank you so much for remembering.”
The people who lined up outside Bangor Auditorium to greet the convoy caught sight of it about 11:40 a.m. as firetrucks from Brewer, Holden, Bangor and Harrington led it off Interstate 395 onto Main Street and then into the Bass Park parking lot.
The truck drivers blasted their horns. Police cars from as far away as Old Orchard Beach sandwiched between the tractor-trailers turned on their sirens.
Members of the Patriot Guard are escorting the convoy again this year all the way to Arlington, while members of the Emerald Society, a volunteer group of police officers from departments around the state, are providing an additional escort through Maine.
Along Route 1 in Washington and Hancock counties, fire and police departments joined the escort through their communities.
Rebecca Beal, 27, of Bradley brought her children, Julia Beal, 5, and David Beal, 8, to the event for an “educational” outing.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” she said. “We’re honoring people who fought for us.”
Inside the auditorium, hundreds took part in a 90-minute ceremony to honor the wreath program and the Worcesters. Many watched the convoy’s arrival projected from a camera on the auditorium roof onto two big screens on either side of the stage.
Peggy Dean, 42, of Bangor brought a large photo cutout of her husband to the event. U.S. Air Force Sgt. William Dean, 43, of Bangor is serving as a chaplain’s assistant in Saudi Arabia. He left Sept. 6 and is due home in mid-January, she said
“I’m here to support other vets and the troops,” Peggy Dean said.
Her father-in-law, William “Bill” Dean, 73, of Bangor, who is a veteran, accompanied her Sunday. William Dean said that he has been a troop greeter at Bangor International Airport for 51/2 years.
“We’ve got to stand behind our troops no matter what else is going on in the country,” he said. “It wasn’t like that after Vietnam.”
Wal-Mart owns six of the trucks that will deliver wreaths to veterans cemeteries. They operate out of the distribution center in Lewiston, Jim Farrell, general transportation manager for the facility, said.
“We have a large group of vets that work in our facility that wanted to give something back to other vets,” he said. “Because we are a national company, we’re also in a position to help give the program a lot more exposure in other parts of the country, especially the West.”
In addition to the trucks, Wal-Mart donated $85,000 to Wreaths Across America that will pay for all of the wreaths to be laid at the veterans cemetery in Fayetteville, Ark., and half the wreaths destined for a cemetery in Maryland, according to Farrell.
One of Wal-Mart’s six trucks left Maine a few days ago for Sacramento, Calif. Two trucks will deliver wreaths to the veterans cemetery in Fayetteville, and three will deliver them to Houston, Texas, according to Farrell.
This is the first year the company based in Bentonville, Ark., has participated in the program.
This is the second year Will Gosbee of Windham, N.H., has driven wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery for Hartt Transportation of Bangor. The company is sending two trucks south this year, one to Arlington and the other to nine cemeteries in southern Virginia and North Carolina.
“The trip is unbelievable,” Gosbee said. The journey includes stops for community events similar to the one in Bangor.
“We wouldn’t have what we have if not for their sacrifices,” he said. “That’s what this event is all about. That and to teach the kids about it.”
The convoy was scheduled to make stops at events in Lewiston and Portland on Sunday.
For more information, visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.com.