Sacred ground: Employees honor fallen soldiers with wreaths
by Allan Sharrett
Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 250,000 fallen U.S. soldiers. To honor their service, I joined Dominion Energy employees and thousands of other volunteers on Dec. 15 to lay wreaths on the graves at Arlington and other veteran cemeteries across the country.
Walking through the long lines of white headstones – amid the many generations of men and women laid to rest there – I was reminded of the sheer enormity of the debt we owe our nation’s veterans, past and present. Arlington is sacred ground, and normally a solemn, quiet place. But on this day, the cemetery was filled with activity as large crowds waited patiently in the rain to lay a wreath on the grave of a loved one or friend, or perhaps someone they never knew at all.
Wreaths Across America Day began quietly at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in the early 1990s when Maine-based Worcester Wreath Company first donated its excess Christmas wreaths to be placed on graves that were seeing fewer visitors each year. It was not until 2005 – when a photo of several hundred wreath-adorned graves in fresh snow went viral – that the movement gained national interest.
A few years later, the volunteer-driven movement caught the attention of northern Virginia-based Dominion Energy employees Marty O’Baker, Bob Doniel, Tony Savage and Kenny Wilkins. Eager to help, they connected with Wreaths Across America (WAA) and – with the help of many fellow employees – began volunteering each December at Arlington National Cemetery.
Image: Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place of more than 250,000 military service men and women.
“Initially we only had enough resources to cover perhaps five to six thousand graves, but it has gained momentum each year we’ve been involved,” said Marty O’Baker, chief event director for WAA at Arlington, and manager of Electric Distribution Operations for Dominion Energy.
“More than a decade later, we’re able to lay a wreath on every single grave at Arlington with the help of more than 60,000 volunteers and numerous corporate sponsors from across the country.”
Dominion Energy’s volunteer ranks have swelled as well, with nearly 300 employees and their families working at this year’s event at Arlington National Cemetery. They are not alone, as employees in recent years have initiated wreath-laying ceremonies at other cemeteries in Virginia, Utah, West Virginia, Ohio, Connecticut, South Carolina and North Carolina.
“We’ve been really encouraged by the employee volunteer efforts nationwide through Wreaths Across America. Every year I’ve been involved with the program we’ve seen increased participation, from both veterans and non-veterans,” said Shane Olson, engineer II - Gas System Planning & Design, and Dominion Energy veterans ERG director.
“The program not only serves to honor our fallen soldiers, but it also helps provide a way to thank our living veterans and teach new generations about the sacrifices so many have made to defend our country,” he explained. Shane volunteered this year at a WAA ceremony at the Virginia Veterans Cemetery in Amelia, VA, along with Bob Post, consulting engineer at Dominion Energy.
Wreaths Across America now coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies at more than 1,400 locations in all 50 states, and at overseas cemeteries – such as Normandy, France – where American service men and women have been laid to rest. The organization’s mission has three components: Remember, Honor, Teach.
For more than a decade, Kenny Wilkins, Marine Corps veteran and Dominion Energy’s manager - Base Privatization at Ft. Belvoir, has many memories from volunteering at the WAA event at Arlington National Cemetery. One such memory will be burned in his brain forever.
Several years ago, he was presented with the difficult but necessary duty of escorting the parents of a young soldier to lay a wreath at his grave in Section 60, where many fallen soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.
“We always prefer for family to lay wreaths on the graves of their loved ones, but as this particular couple approached me, I could tell this was a different circumstance,” he noted. The parents of the soldier were visibly shaken, Kenny remembers, still fraught with grief after the recent loss of their son.
“My fiancée Kysa and I offered to walk with them to his grave, which didn’t yet have a headstone. It was extremely tough, but they needed our emotional and physical presence just to walk over to his final resting spot to lay the wreath. I was just glad we could be there with them during such a terrible time.”
Kevin Jackson first stepped foot on the grounds of Arlington when his father, Joe W. Jackson, Airman First Class - USAF, was buried there in 2003. The experience was moving for Kevin, who is a regular WAA volunteer and supervisor - Distribution Construction Projects at Dominion Energy’s Springfield office. His father served more than two decades in the Air Force, which included two tours in Vietnam.
“He didn’t really talk too much about his experiences, but we could tell it had impacted him. There was an incident where an enemy sniper hit some of his fellow soldiers inside their base perimeter – guys who were standing right next to him – but he only mentioned it a few times,” Kevin said.
Kevin has watched the new rows of headstones in Section 60 fill in over the years.
“Back when we buried my dad just across Bradley Drive in the early 2000s, that section was relatively empty. As we’ve returned to visit him, you can’t help but notice how many soldiers have been laid to rest since. That really hits you hard,” added Kevin.
For Verna Love, project manager II – Design, based in Dominion Energy’s Herndon office, the annual WAA event at Arlington has become a family affair. The Love family began volunteering in 2011.
“I feel this is a way for me and my family to honor those who serve our country and defend our freedom, and show respect for the fallen,” said Verna. “Those buried there
that have no one alive to remember them. This is the one time a year that someone visits their grave. Once all the wreaths are laid, it’s a beautiful sight, simply breathtaking.”
Image: Dominion Energy employees (L-R) Kenny Wilkins, Allan Sharrett and Kevin Jackson participated in the wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington.
The scale and scope of the annual wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington is quite impressive – akin to a military operation. Not only do volunteers place wreaths on graves, they help unload the numerous semi-trucks that arrive from Maine stacked with boxes of green wreaths. They distribute them to other volunteers and prep the empty boxes for recycling. This year Dominion Energy employees staffed 10 trucks, each with a crew of 10 volunteers. A second volunteer force is then required to remove the wreaths each January.
This year was my first visit to Arlington for the WAA wreath-laying event. The cemetery is a familiar place to me, however, as I have buried two family members there – my great uncle John B. Keeley, Colonel - U.S. Army (2004) and my first cousin David H. Sharrett, II, PFC - U.S. Army (2008). Both losses were deeply felt by my family, but the circumstances of their passing are vastly different.
A Vietnam vet, my great uncle John passed at 74 after a long career in both military and civilian life. He left behind a wife, grown children and several grandchildren.
By contrast, my cousin Dave was my age, 27, when his life was cut short by friendly fire in a pre-dawn raid against an Al Qaeda stronghold near Balad, Iraq, in the last years of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As I watched complete strangers laying wreaths on the graves of so many fallen soldiers on December 15, I was comforted by the fact that my family is not alone in our grief. Like so many families that have lost loved ones in defense of our nation, stretching all the way back to the Revolutionary War, our loss is shared by millions of grateful Americans. The work of Wreaths Across America goes beyond the simple act of laying a wreath – it connects our nation’s citizens to its history, helps heal our collective wounds and serves to remind us of the great price so many have paid to keep us free.
For more information about Wreaths Across America, please visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org.