Friday, March 27, 2015

Wreaths Across America say 'Thank You' to truckers at MATS

The folks from Wreaths Across America came to MATS, they say,  to thank the trucking industry for its support of their popular program to remember and honor America’s war dead by laying wreaths on the second Saturday in December wherever those heroes have been laid to rest.

“We want to thank the trucking companies that have helped over the years to bring wreaths to resting places across the country,” said Karen Worcester (pronounced like wooster), Executive Director of Wreaths Across America.
2005 photograph that brought WAA to national attention.

“We’re also distributing cards to drivers,” said her son, Rob, Transportation & Logistics Coordinator for the group. The cards urge drivers to “join our rolling ambassadors” and haul a “truckload of respect.”  Pictured on the card is the group’s annual convoy from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia where, last year, the group’s volunteers laid wreaths at all 227,000 graves there. Drivers are urged to sign up at the website
or by calling 877-385-9504.

The annual convoy is perhaps the most visible element of the Wreaths Across America’s 23-year-old project to honor our war dead. The official convoy consists of 12 trucks as many as authorities will allow and many escorts, including police cruisers from jurisdictions along the route. Two Maine State Police cruisers are part of the escort as are the motorcycles of the Patriot Guard, an organization that promotes “dignity and respect” at memorial services for fallen military and first responders, among other patriotic activities. The official convoy takes a winding route, stopping off to visit schools, veterans groups and civic organizations along the way.

Meanwhile, an unofficial convoy of 70 trucks carries the bulk of the wreaths that it takes to include all of the 227,000 fallen. Those truckers and many others are part of the Wreaths Across America story, according to Karen Worcester.  

That story began in 1992 when Morrill Worcester, Karen’s husband and owner of Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington, Me., found himself with many more Christmas wreaths than he would be able to sell and it occurred to him to donate them to the national cemetery at Arlington. With the help of then-Senator Olympia Snow of Maine, he received permission to place the wreaths on graves in an older, less-frequently visited part of the vast cemetery. Somehow,he had to get the fresh wreaths from Maine to Virginia, and that’s when trucking got involved.

James Prout, owner of a local carrier, volunteered to carry the wreaths, and thus launched what would become a tradition. According to Karen Worcester, the people who went on that first wreath-laying were deeply moved by the markers they encountered in the fields of Arlington.

“When you stand at the grave of a young man, only 19, who died in Korea, you have to think about that life,” she said.

“It took only two hours to lay the wreaths we had that year,” Karen recalled. But what began as a local tribute to national heroes grew year by year as more and more people asked to join the effort. The growth took a leap in 2005 when an Air Force photographer took pictures of the wreath ceremony at Arlington. They appeared in a Pentagon publication, said Karen, “and one of those pictures went viral.”  

The resulting media attention brought inquiries from around the country. “People wanted to help recognize those who were buried, not at Arlington but at other cemeteries in all kinds of places,” Karen explained. The Worcesters responded by sending seven wreaths to each state, one for each branch of the military and the seventh for those who went missing. In 2006 simultaneous wreath-laying ceremonies were held at 150 locations.  

Rob Worcester explained that by 2007 Wreaths Across America, now established as a nonprofit organization, was sending 17,000 wreaths to locations around the country. Volunteer trucking was an increasingly important part of the effort. While James Prout had been delivering wreaths to Arlington every year, a truly national program was beyond his reach. WAA approached Barry Pottle, owner of Pottle’s Transportation, a carrier based in Hermon, Maine. Barry put WAA in touch with many other carriers.
From left, WAA founder Morrill Worcester;  Karen Worcester, Executive Director; Rob Worcester, Transportation & Logistics Coordinator;  Wayne Hanson, Chairman of the Board; Ann Hanson, Board Member; and Tobin Slaven, Social Media Coordinator   

In 2014 those carriers numbered more than 150 and included some of the biggest in the nation. Their more than 260 trucks helped distribute on a volunteer basis what has become a virtual ocean of memorial wreaths to be laid on the graves of the fallen every 2nd Saturday in December. Most of the loads are multi-stop trips undertaken by volunteer drivers who cover the country. Wreaths are now laid by more than 600,000 WAA volunteers at more than 1,000 locations in 50 U.S. states, including all national cemeteries.

It could not happen without  the vital transportation donated by America’s carriers and drivers, said Karen Worcester.

“We’re  here at MATS to say thank you,” her son Rob said.

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