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Back Channels | The wreaths and gratitude keep on coming

A Maine wholesaler has led a nationwide effort to honor sacrifices of veterans and their families.

Morrill Worcester was 12 in 1962 when he first saw Arlington National Cemetery. He was awed by the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the sheer size of the 200-acre cemetery.

"That stayed with me," Worcester says.

Thirty years later, Worcester, then president of a wreath wholesaler in Harrington, Maine, ended the season with 5,000 extra wreaths.

"They were nice fresh wreaths, and I didn't want to throw them away," Worcester says.

He remembered Arlington, and decided to give thanks for a good life by thanking those who make that life possible.

"We've been really blessed here," he says of the business he began as a college sophomore in 1971. That year, Worcester Wreath Co. sold 500 wreaths. This year, he'll move about 600,000, many through L.L. Bean. "I really think it's because of the freedoms we have. . . . And a lot of those freedoms have been given to us by the military."

He took that first tractor-trailer-load of wreaths to Arlington, and he and 24 others spent about six hours placing them on 5,000 graves. Worcester has been back every year since.

This year, he's donating 15,000 wreaths, with 17,000 more coming from Wreaths Across America, the nonprofit Worcester started so others could contribute to the cause.

Arlington still gets the bulk of the wreaths, but they also go to U.S. military cemeteries around the world. Every site gets at least seven, one for each branch of service - Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine - and another for POW/MIAs. Some get more.

The original one-truck trek to Arlington has become a convoy of two tractor-trailers, two Maine State Police cars, and groups like the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle group. This year, the trip from Maine to Virginia along Route 1 has taken a week, with 22 planned stops at schools, cemeteries and vets' organizations. Philadelphia was to get into the act this morning, when the group planned to stop for a presentation at Maternity B.V.M. School on Old Bustleton Avenue.

Tomorrow, about 8:30 a.m., volunteers planned to gather at Arlington's McClellan Arch. Last year, more than 600 people showed up. They were from California and Florida, a Nevada elementary school. There were Boy Scouts, active duty and retired military, and many who never served.

"You don't need a connection to the military to understand what the military has done for us," Worcester says.

With this year's wreath-laying happening on a weekend - a first - even more are expected. Worcester welcomes them all: "The bigger it gets, the more attention to the veterans, and that's what it's all about," he says.

Volunteers are asked to keep a few things in mind.

One: This sacred ground is the resting place of more than 300,000 people. Act accordingly. Last year, a caisson carrying a casket to burial went by the volunteers. "Everyone on that hill went silent," Morrill Worcester's wife, Karen, says. "Guys were there with Pearl Harbor survivor hats, and mothers with kids on their hips. Everyone stopped, and everyone saluted."

Two: Expect to spend a moment with the person on whose grave you place a wreath. Read the inscription. Say a prayer. As Karen Worcester says: "Take five minutes for each one of those who died. Give them that. Talk about what they might have been, what they left behind, so they're more than a number. That's what we really want to do."

Three: There's a noon wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns. At the same time, similar ceremonies will be held at U.S. military cemeteries and bases around the world, from Alaska to Normandy to Iraq.

It's the culmination of another year-long effort to thank vets and their families. And preparations for next year's event will start as soon as the Worcesters return home to Maine.

In between these annual trips, the Worcesters are reminded daily about the impact of their work. Their office walls are packed with military patches and photos sent as thanks. Letters and phone calls arrive regularly with stories of heroism and unbearable loss. Mothers share decades-old grief, the pain undimmed by time.

"We cry every day," Karen Worcester says. "It means a lot to people who have lost someone in the military to know that somebody will always remember that sacrifice."

This week, en route to Arlington, the Worcesters have been telling schoolchildren and others about that loss, that sacrifice. And why it's so important to remember.

Imagine, Karen Worcester says, "the bravery of veterans voluntarily putting themselves between the enemy and my family to protect me. That just humbles me so."

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