By 2022-2023 American Legion Auxiliary National Vice President Lisa Williamson
Americanism is alive and well in the USA! I saw it myself when I joined Wreaths Across America (WAA) for their annual caravan bringing wreaths from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery, complete with a police escort, special guests in 12 SUVs and a bus, and 12 semitractor-trailers filled with wreaths. All nearly 3 miles long!
What is now tooted as “the world’s largest veterans’ parade,” a typical day started at 5 a.m. for breakfast, a safety briefing, and we were on the road by 7 a.m. Each day had at least four stops at schools, monuments, veterans’ homes, and communities.
With flags waving and chants of “USA! USA! USA!”, everyone was reminded how important it is to remember our fallen veterans, honor our military, and teach our children. Sound familiar? Right in line with the American Legion Auxiliary’s mission of supporting our veterans, military, and their families, huh?
Some highlights, and there were many, included the way Gold Star families were remembered and honored at all ceremonies along the way. I was honored to travel with and become friends with American Gold Star Mothers National President Sarah Taylor. Her enthusiasm and passion radiates with her dynamic emotional speaking. Most ceremonies ended with a presentation of a wreath to the Gold Star families, ensuring them that their great sacrifice will never be forgotten.
WAA’s mobile education exhibit trailer tagged along for most of the trip. Its purpose is to teach our children about service, sacrifice, patriotism, and love of country. To demonstrate sacrifice and honor, the trailer was supplied with certificates, pins, and challenge coins thanking all the Vietnam veterans who made their way in to investigate.
One poignant moment was when an 80+-year-old colonel was presented his challenge coin, as he, and everyone else, had tears in our eyes.
During one of the stops, volunteers received handwritten thank-you notes! The note I received from a youngster read, “Dear volunteer: Thank you for laying wreaths on veterans’ graves who have served.” We will leave this country in good hands if this is any indication of how people feel.
Our truckers are the backbone of our country, and the WAA convoy is no different. Trucking services nationwide are donated, and truckers vie to be a part of the convoy. Of the 12 tractor-trailers that carried the very special loads to Arlington, one promoted The American Legion’s centennial, two displayed the POW-MIA banner — paralleling the awareness our ALA National President Vickie Koutz is bringing back to the forefront — and one trucker allowed me to sign his trailer!
Once we arrived in Washington, D.C., our law enforcement officers headed up ceremonies on the National Mall. I had the great privilege to lay a wreath at the Vietnam Wall, join with others as we honored our Korean War veterans, and remembering my own home, I was able to place a wreath at Alaska’s column on the World War II Memorial. These are memories that will live with me forever.
I spoke with many American Legion Family members who joined within their states, and learned how our shared commitment to WAA’s mission mobilizes our membership year-round.
On the final night, ALA Past National President Linda Newsome joined me as a special guest at WAA’s appreciation dinner and rally. Not a dry eye was in the house as a six-minute award-winning short film about WAA’s mission was played. Some of the of those in the film even traveled in the caravan all week. One was a trucker who is a Gold Star dad, having lost his son, and feels honored to transport wreaths to Arlington. The film’s producer, PenFed, then brought him to the stage and presented him with the Emmy! More tears throughout the building but smiles too.
The next day, WAA coordinated wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. Linda and I were able to place a wreath on her husband’s gravesite. That was one of the emotional moments I had, but I tried to play it strong for Linda. Luckily, I was able to turn away and head back to the trailer for more wreaths. I purposely took a few extra minutes to gather myself, as well as allow her the opportunity to pay respects to her husband, Theron “T” Newsome.
Nearly 40,000 volunteers signed up to help place wreaths in Arlington; estimates say it was closer to 70,000! And I do not doubt — over 400,000 graves were displayed with wreaths in a matter of 2½ hours.
To cap the day, wreath-laying ceremonies were held at the President Taft Memorial, JFK Memorial, RFK Memorial, the USS Maine Memorial, and the final ceremonial wreath placement was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As Linda and I made the trek up the hill, we were amazed as we looked out over each section with a wreath at every headstone. It was awe-inspiring!
Not only were wreaths placed at Arlington, our fallen servicemembers and veterans were honored at more than 3,700 additional locations across all 50 U.S. states, at sea, and abroad.
The 2023 National Wreaths Across America Day will be Saturday, Dec. 16. For more information, visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org to volunteer by placing wreaths, sponsoring wreaths, coordinating new locations, and so much more. #FindAWayToServe
Personally, I thank Morrill and Karen Worcester, their founder and executive director; Wayne Hanson, chairman of their board; and the whole WAA team, especially my escort, Joe Reagan, their military and veteran outreach director. I made some amazing friends as I smiled from ear to ear all week long with tears in my eyes. I was deeply moved and forever changed by being a very small part of this event. I hope to see you all next December.
On behalf of the ALA, I deeply thank Wreaths Across America for the opportunity to join the WAA caravan as we “Remember. Honor. Teach.” The patriotic spirit I witnessed thrived along the way!